From lighting the Hanukkia to eating fried latkes and doughnuts, pretty much every Jewish school kid knows that Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabees’ improbable military triumph over the Greeks and the miraculous oil that burned in the Menorah for eight days instead of just one. But few children—or even adults—know that several scholars believe that some of the most beloved Hanukkah traditions are actually rooted in pagan and seasonal traditions.
Back before anyone had ever heard of a Maccabee, Jews and non-Jews in ancient Israel celebrated the winter solstice and the longer daylight hours it promised. According to Louis Finkelstein, a Jewish scholar in the early 20th century, their rituals were similar to a Greek-Syrian holiday that celebrated the sun god Kronos-Helios’s birthday. Households lit eight flames on a fireboard in their house each night of the eight-day festival. Some added a flame each night while others decreased the number of lit flames as the holiday progressed. The fires were thought to persuade nature to elongate daylight. The late Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, the founder of one stream of Humanistic Judaism, referred to this holiday tradition as Nayrot (light), and argued that the Maccabees seized power and changed the holiday’s meaning to commemorate their victory.
Some scholars believe the Maccabees defeated Antochius IV’s regime in October 165 BCE but waited until the winter to begin the temple’s restoration so that the new holiday would correspond with Nayrot. Whether this is true or not, Judah Maccabee, the military leader of the Maccabees, renamed the holiday Hanukkah (dedication), and intended it to mark the rededication of the Temple to God. The transition from Nayrot to Hanukkah wasn’t too difficult: both holidays celebrate similar human triumphs. Nayrot marked humans’ ability to produce fire, a crucial step in the development of human self-confidence that was essential to societal advancement. Though Judah Maccabee might not have intended to perpetuate the values of Nayrot, Hanukkah’s emphasis on Jewish communal and spiritual rejuvenation meshed seamlessly with the themes of the holiday. Aspects of the two festivals have become vital parts of the modern Hanukkah celebration, says Finkelstein.
The Maccabees hoped Hanukkah would become an essential Jewish holiday, but religious authorities were reluctant. This was an expression of their frustration that the Maccabees asserted intellectual authority over divine dictums and claimed royal authority though they were not descendants of King David. It was only when the rabbinical establishment regained power under Roman rule that Hanukkah was even deemed a minor holiday as Nayrot had been. In the centuries following Hanukkah’s establishment, its religious aspects have been amplified: Many scholars believe rabbis created the idea of the Hanukkah miracle to draw attention away from Hanukkah’s glorification of the Maccabees’ military might. At the same time, rabbinical authorities often tried to hide the fact the holiday grew out of the “pagan” festival of Nayrot.
Generations of Jews have continued to infuse Nayrot-turned-Hanukkah with new meanings. The Zionist “Hovevi Zion” movement of the late 1800’s adopted Hanukkah as their major holiday. They viewed the story of Hanukkah as a metaphor for the Zionist struggle. Today, the city of Haifa uses Hanukkah as a catalyst to promote interfaith solidarity through their annual “Holiday of Holidays” festival celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas and Ramadan. And in the United States and elsewhere it is an expression of Jewish identity in a month marked by a major Christian holiday that shares the same winter solstice origin.
—Adapted from an article by Gabriel Weinstein on Moment’s IntheMoment blog.