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Chanukah Lamp Lights And Persian Fire Worship – OpEd

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Now when the dark nights grow longer and longer, all of us, Jews, Christians and Muslims, who cry out for minorities who are suffering political and religious oppression, such as the Rohingya people of Myanmar and the Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang Province; and for those who despair of Iran and the USA ever being able to reach an agreement to avoid nuclear proliferation; and a possible war between Iran and Israel, should learn from the Jewish 8 holy days of Chanukah; that hopeful dedication, with faith and trust in God, will give people of every place the ability to experience miracles.

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The 8 day Jewish holiday of Chanukah [November 28 eve to December 6 this year] is based on well recorded historical events that occurred between 168 and 142 BCE when a 25 year long revolt against a Greek king who ruled Syria led to Jewish freedom and independence. However, the meaning of the most popular ritual of this Festival of Lights is a mystery within a mystical light.

The 8 days of Hanukkah [which  means “dedication.”] are often referred to as the Festival of Lights because they also teach: Do not blame the Darkness; light a candle. The “festival of lights” is mentioned in the Christian Gospel of John [10:22] when Jesus goes to the Jerusalem Temple to celebrate the Feast of Rededication: Chanukah!

This makes me, a Reform Judaism Rabbi think of the Qur’an’s ayah; “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things. (Qur’an 24:35)

One of the examples that Allah presents for people is the Chanukah lamp’s 8 days of increasing light, which Jewish people lite prior to the the darkest nights of nature’s year.

The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the first known attempt at suppressing any religion, but unfortunately not the last. Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity; and the terrible persecution of Prophet Muhammad and his followers by the majority of the pagan Arabs in Mecca.

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All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lamp that long ago filled believers with hope and trust in God; and lasted longer than anyone thought possible. This is truly: “Light upon light”.

After all “He is the One Who sends to His servant manifest signs that He may lead you from the depths of Darkness into the Light and verily Allah is to you most kind and Merciful.” (Qur’an 57:9)

Professor Shai Secunda of Bard College points out that Talmud Yerushalmi does not refer to a rabbinically endorsed practice of kindling lights for Chanukah, it just offers a short dialogue about using contaminated oil to light the Chanukah candles, plus a brief discussion about the blessing that must be recited.

The first account of a miraculously burning oil appears in the Babylonian Talmud Bavli. This passage is unique; it is the only reference to the miracle oil in classical rabbinic literature, and the only place where the rabbis devote extensive attention to the laws of lighting the candles.

By telling the miracle of the oil, Talmud Bavli effectively rebranded Chanukah, so that instead of just glorifying Hasmonean military prowess, the holiday glorifies the miraculous divine light that all monotheists can depend on, even in the gloomiest days of darkness. Yet if this explanation is correct, why is the miracle not mentioned anywhere else in early rabbinic literature.

Dr. Secunda states that a recent view relates specifically to Talmud Bavli’s Zoroastrian context. Babylonian Jews lived in the administrative heart of the Sasanian Persian Empire; alongside Persian speakers who identified as Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism venerates sacred fire, and has great concern for those sacred fires which must be protected from impurity and treated with great respect.

This may explain several talmudic passages that describe Zoroastrian priests trying to seize lite candelabras from rabbis, perhaps because they were worried about Jewish mistreatment of fire.

Or possibly the Zoroastrian Persian’s veneration of fire created a general climate of respect for fire holiness which encouraged some of the Babylonian Talmud’s stringencies regarding the holiness of the Chanukah lamp’s lights, which verge on a veneration of flaming oil wicks.

Sacunda thinks both factors may have played a role in the Talmud telling the oil miracle story, which emphasizes the role that a miraculous flame of fire (the atomic energy of that time) played in the events commemorated by Chanukah. “Light upon light”.

First, if lighting the menorah’s lamps was a central component of the Chanukah story, Jews would be able to explain their custom of kindling oil lights to worried Zoroastrian priests. In addition, a miraculous story about fire in the Jerusalem Temple may have resonated particularly well with Babylonian Jews who lived in a Persian world of Zoroastrian fire temples and fire veneration.

The second chapter of 2 Maccabees narrates a story that comprises these same basic elements, although it describes the rededication of the [Jerusalem Temple] altar and not its menorah [candelabra]. One of 2 Maccabees main goals is to refer to earlier “Chanukah” celebrations, so the Maccabean Chanukah should not be seen as an unprecedented innovation, but rather as an observance with much deeper roots in Jewish history.

In recounting this pre-Hasmonean dedication, the text describes the efforts of Nehemiah to restore sacrifices in the early years of the Second Temple, after the Babylonian Exile. Since fire is central to the use of the altar; as with the menorah, which in Talmud Bavli’s telling requires pure olive oil stamped with the seal of the High Priest, one cannot use any other kindling for the ritual, only material traced back to the original altar. 

Thus, when Nehemiah is ready to restore sacrifices on the altar, he needs to somehow “retrieve” the original fire from the First Temple. The original fire had not continue to burn, but its residue had been hidden away by Jerusalem’s Temple priests and could now be retrieved. Miraculously, this “naphtha” caught fire and consumed the sacrifice, thus (re-)inaugurating the altar, inspiring prayers of praise and thanks.

2 Maccabees was written in Greek and its account of Nehemiah’s fire altar miracle is the kind of tradition that may have circulated orally in antiquity. The appearance of the menorah-lighting miracle story in Babylonian Talmud and not the Jerusalem Talmud, with its emphasis on searching for lighting material, and a miraculous kindling, likely derives from this narrative. The Babylonian Persian rabbis had an altar rededication tradition and transformed it into a menorah oil rededication tradition. “Light upon light”.

Support for this explanation is found in 2 Maccabees which describes a Zoroastrian connection to the Nehemiah tradition, which may further connect it to Talmud Bavli’s discussion of Chanukah: “After the materials of the sacrifice had been consumed, Nehemiah ordered that the liquid that was left should be poured on large stones. When this was done, a flame blazed up; but then it went out.

“When this matter became known, and it was reported to the king of the Persians that, in the place where the exiled priests had hidden the fire, the liquid had appeared with which Nehemiah and his associates had burned the materials of the sacrifice, the [Persian] king investigated the matter, and enclosed the place and made it sacred.”

I believe that for the Hasmoneans to kindle the menorah right away would be to expose themselves to disappointment, disparagement and recriminations if the flames died out before a new supply of purified oil arrived. To kindle the menorah right away would be to stake their reputation, and to place their faith, on an uncertain eventuality.

All human beings, even in our own age, face similar challenges in their own lives. We know that frequently faith, hope and trust in God can result in failures that lead to despair and cynicism. We also know that faith, hope and trust can lead to wonderful experiences of love, courage and miraculous accomplishment. “Light upon light”.

Without 18 centuries of faith, hope and trust, a modern Jewish homeland would never have come into existence. Similarly, without faith, hope and trust in God for the future, Israel will never be at peace with those who have become its enemies.

Jews must believe that miracles do sometimes occur, as indicated in the blessing Jews recite when kindling the Chanukah lights: “in those days, and [even today] in these times”— because that faith, hope and trust in God is the only reasonable explanation for 3,500 years of continuing Jewish existence. The long-lasting oil is only the visible stuff of the spiritual lesson of Chanukah.

People who are oppressed by political powers and governments today, as Jews and Muslims were by the Inquisition in Spain, and who are forced to go underground, need to remind themselves of the lessons of Chanukah; and to trust that the greater spiritual Jihad is more important and long lasting than the lesser Jihad of political power and police force.

If we can live up to the ideal that faithful hope for peace and justice can overcome negativism, we will help fulfill the 2700 year old vision of Prophet Isaiah: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel  will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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