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A Discussion About Teaching Hanukkah: Miracle or Not?

Discussion from November 2004

Toni Bloomberg Grossman, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD

Hi everyone,

I am rewriting a Hanukah Curriculum that I originally wrote last year. One of the points that I had emphasized for younger grades was: “When the Jews recaptured the Holy Temple, by a miracle the small amount of oil burned in the menorah for 8 nights as a way of remembering the miracle of the oil. The problem is that we have taught this and learned for many years, but this fact is incorrect.” FYI in Noam Zion’s A Different Light: The Hanukkah Book of Celebration, pg. 244 there is an excerpt that discusses this and is really interesting.

I’d love your thoughts on how to pursue teaching about Hanukah or how to discuss the “miracle” with young children. Our challenge is that once we teach something incorrectly, it can be that much more difficult to teach the correct version of the story later on.

Thanks for your feedback,

Education Director

Benjy Ben-Baruch, Congregation T’chiyah, Detroit, MI

I have dealt with this issue for years and when I was a Hebrew school principal I was very clear that it was improper and unprofessional to teach the story of the miracle of the oil as having any historical accuracy. The myth of the oil is bad history, bad theology, and bad doctrine. Teaching this myth as history violates the basic principles of Reconstructionist, Conservative, Reform, and Secular-Humanist Judaism. Even the youngest of children can be taught that “this is a fictional story we tell about what happened and why we celebrate Hanukah for 8 days” or — more accurately – “this is a fictional story the rabbis told to explain why we celebrate Hanukah for 8 days”. Slightly older students (in the elementary grades) can be taught the truth. And do we know what the truth is? Indeed we do!

For the texts that I and my teachers have successfully used, go to my personal website http://home.earthlink.net/~bbenbaruch/ and click on “The Stories of Hanukah and the Myth of the Oil” or go directly to http://home.earthlink.net/~bbenbaruch/hnkh4texts.htm.

Benjy Ben-Baruch

Mary F. Meyerson, Congregation Oseh Shalom, Laurel, MD


Even with little kids, the miracle I would choose to emphasize is that a small number of ill-equipped rebels won a war against a mighty force. They were standing up for the freedom to worship God as they chose. After the war was done, they cleaned the temple and celebrated the holiday they’d most recently missed: Sukkot. As time went on, our people chose to remember the Hanukah miracle by changing the story to talk about the miracle of the oil. Family stories often get changed around a little: the real miracle is, in the words of Peter Yarrow, that we “don’t let the light go out.”

Just my take on it….


Education Director

Anne Johnston, Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Evanston, IL

Dear Toni: I’m a big fan of talking about difficult issues like this in terms of metaphors, myself:

As the years passed, the people did not want to forget how miraculous it was that a small band of Jews defeated the mighty Greek (-Syrian) army, and how great the joy was at restoring the Temple. Somehow, to the original story was added the miracle of the oil. Why might people have told the story that way? (I’ve done discussions with 4th graders on prophecy in this way—they’re really able to handle this) Because Kislev is dark and this story talks about light in the darkness (as Mary said, “don’t let the light go out”). Because three years was a long time, and 8 days is a long time for one jug of oil to last—it emphasizes the Maccabees’ long suffering coming to an end. Because relighting the sacred lights in the Temple was a way of showing that they’d defeated those pagans. Because the miracle of finding one lone sealed jug of oil connects the past of the Jewish people with the present, emphasizing that we go on in spite of interlopers.

BUT—I don’t see a problem with telling the story the “wrong” way to early childhood-age kids (e.g., pre-K through 2 or 3). They’re still in a fantasy age—and just like Christian kids outgrow Santa and everybody outgrows the tooth fairy, so our kids can outgrow literal miracles without losing the sense of the miraculous. I think that the miracle of the oil story brings a magic to Hanukah that’s age-appropriate to little kids—but that by revisiting it when they’re a LITTLE older and asking: so why has the story been told this way all these years (and why did WE tell you the story this way up until now), we help them to understand the importance of that miraculous sense—THAT WONDER that our people did not want to lose.

Then in 6th grade, we teach the story as a Jewish civil war (a la Torah Aura’s The True Story of Hanukah)—that’s the next developmental stage: from fighting pagans to Jewish infighting. For our kids, it builds on their study of the rabbinic era in 5th grade, which culminates in a program exploring the Great Revolt, not just of the Jews against the Romans, but also of the internecine Jewish fighting in the face of the Roman occupation. So they first see Jew vs. Jew nastiness in the context of a war to which they have no connection—and then they see it the next year in the context of a story to which they have a long connection. (And then hopefully in 8th grade they go on the Chicago-area trip to Israel and visit Masada).

Anne Johnston
Education Director

Shai Gluskin, JRF, Philadelphia, PA


I wouldn’t put the emphasis on “correct” and “incorrect” but rather on the stories that people told at different times and what those stories meant to the people who told and heard them.

I don’t want to diminish the version the rabbis tell in the Talmud. They tell it that way for good reason. After the total failure and huge loss of life of the Bar Kochba rebellion, many rabbis were probably suspicious of violence and rebellion being a solution to anything, so they interpreted the meaning of Hanukkah in a more spiritual light. In addition, the descendants of the Maccabees, the Hasmoneans, had significantly corrupted the priesthood and they were the nemesis to the rabbis who were starting rabbinic Judaism. So it makes sense that the rabbis would tell the story in a way that emphasized God’s role as opposed to the Maccabees’ role.

I kind of agree with Mary’s approach, although she seems to suggest that there is a “true” story, and then there are all the changed versions of it. The closest thing we have for “real” Hanukkah is the Book of Maccabees which was preserved via the Christian canon, not our own. And that account (at least as I remember it, having last read most of it about 6 years ago) describes a civil war among the Jews. Antiochus is certainly mean, but it’s not clear who is truly representing the Jews, so in some ways you can’t blame for taking the side of “bad” Jews. How should he know which group conspire with. It’s a very messy and bloody story. And even in the Book of Maccabees, the closest source to the actual events, it is still being told through someone’s perspective. We can’t know what really happened.

Ever hear that the main idea of Hanukah’s is about religious freedom. Well that “spin” is a distinctly American invention. That isn’t to put it down or say it is wrong, it’s just to notice.

My answer is: tell the story over and over b’shem omro, in the name of the people who told it that way. Try to understand why they told it that way. After the kids have heard the story so many times, they’ll have the characters and props down, but then they can construe their own version of it. And then they can study their own story and ask the same questions. What is it about your lives that made you want to retell the story in such a way? When this is done right, it can be the best of Reconstructionism:

*getting all the good stories without having to censor them

*not taking any of the stories too seriously

*self-consciously participating in fabricating a relevant meaning for the people telling and hearing it

*not taking yourself too seriously — knowing that the version you have just created is simply that, one more version.

So maybe this is why we have a dreidel, to notice that each version of Hanukkah is in fact spin.


Rabbi Shai Gluskin
Director of Education

Bill Berkson, Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation, Ashburn, VA


I think the way to deal with the oil story is to categorize it as aggadah, a legend that tells us something about the spiritual meaning of the history without necessarily being intended as factual. You can note that traditional Judaism does not take aggadah as fact, but still treasures it.

That this aggadah was mistakenly taught to many of us as history we don’t really have to go into. The historical status of the Torah is more complicated, but the oil story is I think relatively easy to handle.

Education Director

Toni Bloomberg Grossman, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD

I would like to thank each and everyone of the educators that responded to my question about the myth vs the miracle of Hanukah. You have each given me great food for thought. I will share the curriculum with each of you when I have completed the work.

Danny shared with me some text sources comparing and contrasting different versions of the story that he has used over the past six years:

  • Apocrypha – I Maccabees chapter 4
  • Apocrapha – II Maccabees chapter 10
  • Midrash-Pesikta Rabbati, chapter 2
  • B. Talmud- Shabbat 21b
  • Megillat Ta’anit chapter 9

Todah Rabah,

Education Director

Maurice Harris, Temple Beth Israel, Eugene, OR


First, I’d like to say I’ve enjoyed the discussion about Hanukkah. A few random thoughts to throw in the stew, in no particular order:

1. I once as a young Hebrew school teacher taught 5th or 6th graders about the oil story possibly being non-factual, and tried to go into a liberal/Reconstructionist conversation about the evolution of traditions and the beauty of myth & history being complex, etc. The mistake I made was I did this without regard for context. I assumed that because it was a liberal synagogue that this wouldn’t floor the kids. Well, this bunch of generally secular kids ended up really annoyed with me. I became the teacher who ruined Hanukkah. They weren’t prepared to have the kind of discussion I had hoped to have with them (and I thought it would build their delight in Judaism, too). So I’m all for having the conversation that questions the veracity of traditions in the best spirit of liberal Judaism, but I think it’s important to know one’s audience and teach that which can be received. In hindsight, with that particular group of kids, I’d have needed to do a lot of preparatory work to have made that unit succeed.

2. I was reading the post in this discussion that included mention of a trip to Masada for teens. I think it’s interesting that this came up, because we pretty much all believe the Masada story, but in my Contemporary Israeli Civilization class at RRC, we learned that a great deal of that story is mythology and may be inaccurate – potentially grossly inaccurate. I can’t remember the specifics right now of what we learned, but if you’re willing to do some homework, you’ll find research that suggests that the glorious Masada myth that is deeply ingrained in Israeli and American Jewish consciousness may be way off base. Are we prepared to also take the kids up Masada with the tour guide, but also do our homework and tell them what the various versions of reality might be regarding Masada, too? Personally, I think teaching kids – at an age appropriate level – to think for themselves about myth & its contemporary uses is healthy. I hope we will always put truth first, and yet I recognize the difficulties we sometimes face in trying to figure out how to teach the truth in myth that may reside in meaning rather than accuracy.


Rabbi Maurice Harris
Education Director

Anne Johnston, Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Evanston, IL

Benjy, I get your reasoning behind not wanting to teach “bad history.”

But what about the place of myth and fantasy in the imaginative lives of young children? In the Waldorf schools, they teach entirely through myth and folktales until about 3rd grade. (And you can agree with that approach without having to “buy” the rest of the philosophy of anthroposophy).

There’s a reason kids love the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. I’m not advocating AT ALL that Jewish kids need a made-up equivalent of Santa — our tradition is rich with our very own homemade mythic figures.

But what I don’t see is the need to eliminate those very JEWISH mythic figures—Elijah coming around to every house on Pesach, Elijah reappearing in times of trouble in history, the lamed-vavniks—and the miracle of the oil. They play to a young child’s (and early childhood is officially defined by the educational establishment as going THROUGH 3rd grade) vivid imagination, engagement with stories and story making, search for heroes, etc, etc.

As children grow older, they naturally outgrow myths as they nurture their growing capabilities for abstract thought. There’s a reason that we don’t have to bring up whether the world was literally created in six 24-hr days—because the kids will ALWAYS ask that question when they’re developmentally ready (and for kids who have grown up with dinosaurs, that may be in preschool!). They become ready to hear that there is an alternate “truth”—and we can then use that transition to teach them Reconstructionist ways of reading texts—ways that emphasize asking “why was the story crafted this way?”—WHY would our people tell the story of the miracle of oil—WHAT LESSON or perspective on Hanukah does that show us?

Looking forward to more discussion,

Anne Johnston
Education Director

Benjy Ben-Baruch, Congregation T’chiyah, Detroit, MI

Ann wrote:
“Benjy, I get your reasoning behind not wanting to teach ‘bad history.’ But what about the place of myth and fantasy in the imaginative lives of young children? … As children grow older, they naturally outgrow myths as they nurture their growing capabilities for abstract thought.”

First, one can tell stories and children can — and should! — be exposed to our myths. But stories we know are historically inaccurate should NEVER be presented as historically accurate. Just as importantly, we should not be presenting ideas about God and miracles to children in ways that give them false notions about God and miracles. We end up creating people with bad senses of history and bad theologies and bad sense of Judaism.

Finally, it has been empirically established that many children never outgrow the myths we present as true. Even if they grow up to understand that these are myths, we know for a fact that we have created adult Jews who believe that Judaism teaches falsehoods about history and God. And then they do indeed outgrow the myths — and in the process reject Judaism because we have taught them that to be Jewish means believing these things that none of us believe.

Children can be told stories and be told that these stories are stories, not “true” in the historical sense. They can also be taught that we used to teach this story and that many Jewish children grew up believing it was true but it is in fact not true.

We do not do ourselves any favors by teaching that Judaism teaches things we do not believe in, that Hanukah is about a miracle predicated on a view of God and miracles that we do not accept. This is much more confusing and damaging to our children.

And for anyone that is still skeptical about the lasting damage that can be done when people are taught to believe simplistically about religion and God and religious teachings, I suggest you look at the results of the election held earlier this week.

Benjy Ben-Baruch

December 2004

The discussion continued in December 2004.


Joanne Heiligman, Congregation Shalom Aleichem, Columbia, MD

Many of us are aware that the Hanukah story about the oil first appears in the Talmud several hundred years after the Maccabees, this is an interesting thing to point out to adults, but I question the wisdom of concluding from this that children should be taught that the menorah miracle didn’t happen. What are people teaching in your schools? Apparently some children in my area, (I don’t know exactly where) have been taught that the miracle never happened. Is there any value to undermining the universal story of Hanukah for children in the name of intellectual honesty? Curious as to other people’s approaches on this.


Benjy Ben-Baruch, Congregation T’chiyah, Detroit, MI

We know for a fact that the miracle of the oil did not happen.

We know and believe that God does not operate this way, miracles do not happen this way, and that the theological underpinnings of this story are unacceptable.

Therefore, it is just plain bad pedagogy to teach that the story of the miracle is actually happened or is anything but a story. It is very bad pedagogy to teach that this story is true (in the sense of having actually happened).

One does not have to teach young children that this story is false. Rather, one may teach that this is just a story. However, if a student asks “Is it true?” or “did this actually happen” it is very bad pedagogy to lie. To such a question one must respond honestly and tell students, “No, this is just a story. It didn’t actually happen.”

For those interested, various stories about why we celebrate Hanukah from early rabbinic sources are on my personal website: http://home.earthlink.net/~bbenbaruch/

Happy Hanukah


Rick Brody, Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, Los Angeles, CA

In addition to this myth de-bunking, I also just came across the history of the dreidl. It was simply a European game, the letters were for the German words referring to the consequences (Nichts = nothing, Gans = all, etc.), and then Jews “assimilated” this secular practice into Hanukah celebrations, coming up with the nifty “Neis Gadol Haya Sham.” A fascinating irony in light of how the theme of assimilation is so significant in the Hanukah story, but again, not something that’s going to do much good for promoting an appropriately child-like love for the holiday within our children.

Chag Urim Sameach,

Rabbi Rick Brody
Jewish Studies

Bill Berkson, Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation, Ashburn, VA

I am on the other side on this issue. George Bernard Shaw said, “Hypocrisy is not the first duty of a parent.”

We can’t say for sure whether the miracle of the oil is true or false, but we can safely put it in the category of legend, aggadah. Its literal truth is doubtful, but it does reflect that a miracle happened. In the Siddur the prayer for Hanukah describes the miracle as the victory of the few against the mighty, the righteous against the wicked. And that is no doubt the way it was experienced at the time. In A Different Light: The Big Book of Hanukkah, Noam Zion has a lovely essay (p 185) called “Al HaNissim: Do I believe in miracles?” One of the views of miracles he gives is that they are God-given opportunities, and this fits in with the victories of the Jewish fighters against Antiochus.

Children can understand that there are stories to illustrate a point without being taken literally. The comparison to George Washington chopping down the cherry tree is a good one. It was written only after he died, and is likely not true, the historians say. But Washington was an honest man, and the story dramatizes it. The oil miracle is a good legend to tell as legend.

I am against treating legend as truth because I think Judaism has true core beliefs, we shouldn’t sully it with stories that then going to be debunked. It gives the message to a child that you were never serious in the first place. In popular culture the tooth fairy and Santa Claus are in the same category. When we knowingly lie to children we undermine truth.

Bill Berkson
Education Director

Ira Beckerman, Temple Beth Shalom, Mechanicsburg, PA

Why are we getting wrapped around the axle over what did or did not take place during the times of the Maccabees? I don’t see this back and forth over Purim (a fabulous story and one of my favorites, but true? Well…) What seems to be at the heart of all of this is miracle envy. Here we are, minding our own business as Jews, and now Christmas is huge in this country and dominates all life for two months. Hanukah cannot measure up, nor should it be required to measure up as the Jewish Christmas. But that is what we are doing in the good old U.S. of A. More presents, more cards, a Hanukah bush, the token Hanukah song in the “Christmas”, no excuse me, “Holiday” song-fest.

I think the really pedagogic moment is to talk about Christmas as a religious holiday and as a secular holiday in the US, and how well-meaning people have been led by capitalist tendencies to make this the primary engine for the American economy, not the religious celebration of Christians. It’s time to take the heat off of Hanukah and let it be the minor religious holiday it once was.

Conversely, it is time to get the some of the major holidays- Shavuot, Sukkot, Pesach – front and center.

My rantings-

Ira Beckerman

Benjy Ben-Baruch, Congregation T’chiyah, Detroit, MI

In a response to Yocheved with which I am obviously in basic agreement, Bill Berkson wrote:
“…We can’t say for sure whether the miracle of the oil is true or false…”

I have to take very strong objection to the above statement. We do know, with absolute certainty, that the story of the miracle was concocted long after the end of the Hasmonean revolt and we know with absolute certainty that it never in fact happened.

Or at least we know this with as much certainty as one knows anything about the past.

Oh, and btw, we also know with certainty that the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree is not true.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Hanukah, but the oil did not miraculously burn for 8 days.

Benjy Ben-Baruch

Arnie Samlan, Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York

It seems to me that it would depend on the age of the students. In our community Hebrew High school, for example, I taught two versions of the story: one from Book of the Maccabees (and Al Ha-nisim), emphasizing the victory, the other from the Talmud, discussing the miracle of the oil. This led to a great discussion about the value of Jewish stories (regardless of the historical accuracy), and the reasons that different stories of Hanukah were pushed to the forefront at different points in history.

With younger grades, however, it is real challenge. I have, at times, preceded the teaching about the miracle of the oil with the statement “this is what the rabbis of ancient times believed happened.” That way, we are not belittling the story, while at the same time not teaching something that will have to be unlearned or revised later in a student’s life.

Rabbi Arnold D. Samlan
Director of Nassau/Queens Services

Joanne Heiligman, Congregation Shalom Aleichem, Columbia, MD

I envision this scenario:

A young child goes to school and is asked to tell about Hanukah to her Christian friends (This happens almost everywhere, but especially in areas where there are few Jewish children, and the teachers are attempting to balance out all the Christmas activities that they will be doing in school. OK in private schools, problematic in public schools, but that is another topic.)

Does she stand up in front of the class and say, Hanukah is about a miracle that never happened?

Then all the little Christian kids (who probably have seen the Rugrats Hanukah special, at least, and have some idea of the story) get the message that Judaism is about false stories. The Jewish kid is told that Christmas is about the son of God and that Really Happened, and the poor Jewish child ends up feeling foolish for celebrating and attempting to explain a holiday than has no basis.

In Judaism, Minhag k’halakha, custom is as binding as law. Legend too, can be as powerful as truth.

I might strengthen Arnie’s language to “The Talmud teaches us, that….” Or “Our rabbis taught” rather than our rabbis believed which does imply that they did, and I don’t.

I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the Hanukah story that has been celebrated for 1400 years is no longer going to unite Jews, so that we are no longer all celebrating the same holiday. After all, wouldn’t the next logical step be to eliminate the candles?

Conveniently, Hanukah helps our children hold onto their minority customs and traditions in the face of the December onslaught. Eviscerating it seems like a bad idea to me.


Benjy Ben-Baruch, Congregation T’chiyah, Detroit, MI

Arnie wrote: “With younger grades, however, it is real challenge. I have, at times, preceded the teaching about the miracle of the oil with the statement ”this is what the rabbis of ancient times believed happened.“ That way, we are not belittling the story, while at the same time not teaching something that will have to be unlearned or revised later in a student’s life.”

How and why do we belittle the story if we teach and treat it as being exactly what it is — a myth that we know for certain did not actually take place, a story?

Why would any educator want to teach such a myth as being “true” (in the sense of having actually happened)?

Why would any educator want to teach such a myth as not only being true historically but also as properly depicting the nature of the way God acts in the world and the nature of miracles when in fact we utterly reject this theology, this notion of how God acts in the world, and this notion of “miracle”?

We know the story is not empirically true. We reject the theological underpinnings. We reject the ways in which God and miracles are depicted.

And yet we continually debate whether or not we should be miseducating our children because we ourselves and our parents and our parents’ parents were miseducated.

Moreover, I will bet that the same people who think we ought to teach this story as true believe that Christian fundamentalists are wrong to teach Creationism as science. If it is not educational misconduct to teach the story of the miracle of the oil as true then teaching Creationism as science is also legitimate. And it is proper to miseducate children and to justify this miseducation as good traditional education based on some sort of warped conception of traditional values.

Shame on us!

Benjy Ben-Baruch
who thinks it rather odd to be celebrating freedom and the Maccabean revolution at this time of legal devolution and the shredding of the Constitution in the name of traditional values.

Michal Marks, Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue

The story of the oil is Midrash. Midrash is good. This whole conversation confuses me. We are teaching about Judaism. We are teaching the joy in celebration, in shared stories and in our traditions. We are NOT teaching a college class on biblical criticism. Whether or not the miracle of the oil happened, whether or not the Exodus happened, whether or not creation happened, we teach our oral history. Why would you take the magic out of childhood for anyone??

By the way, I believed in the tooth fairy as well and I’m just fine. Politically correct is terrific, but let’s not take our shared traditions away for the sake of…..what??

Michal Marks
Education Director

Bill Berkson, Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation, Ashburn, VA

In response to Benjy:

Please tell me how we know for certain that the story was concocted after the fact. I don’t believe the miracle of the oil, but I don’t know how you can know it for sure was not a story from the time of the event, passed down orally (with distortions) and only written down later. The Washington story is similar – just because it was written down later doesn’t mean it was false, even though it is certainly suspect. If we can be sure either was made up from whole cloth I will be happy to learn how we can be sure.

My point about legends is that they usually make some important point, and at the same time we can’t be sure how much is based in fact, and how much embellished. I think the proportion varies, and unlike many I think it is valuable to sort out as far as possible what were the real events, as well as the legend. For example, with the Purim story, even some of the sages took it as a fable, not divinely inspired (Meg. 7a), and it is likely almost all fiction. At the other extreme, I reject the positivist view that if you can’t find evidence independent of the text to confirm it, it is fictitious. Thus some say there was no Moses. This I think is as unscientific as swallowing all the miracles whole. In the case of Moses, I think there are good reasons to believe that there was an historical Moses who promulgated many of the views he does in the Torah, including the Ten Commandments.

For myself, I would like to have children understand the category of legend, aggadah, which is in fact traditional. Jews are not even traditionally required to believe the literal truth of aggadah, and the oil miracle falls in that category.

In Response to Ira:

I used to feel as you about overdoing Hanukah, but having recently studied most of the two wonderful ‘A Different Light’ books, I feel very differently now. The Sages played down Hanukah because the Hasmonean state failed, and the Rabbis wanted to avoid politics and focus on religious and communal issues. But now we are in an era where the issue that sparked the successful rebellion – assimilation – is a key issue outside Israel, and within Israel we now have a successful state – may it last! Thus the issues of Hanukah are now central in our lives, and it is worth making a big fuss over, with big study and big fun.

In Response to Joanne/Yocheved:

Your excellent question “Does she stand up in front of the class and say, Hanukah is about a miracle that never happened?” has a good answer. She can say “It is about the miracle of the triumph of the few against the many, the righteous against the wicked, which enabled Judaism to survive to this day.” This is paraphrasing the prayer in the Siddur, and it is true. About specifically the candle lighting, if it comes up, I would have her tell the ‘legend of the miraculous oil’. Certainly Christians, with their Santa Claus, will not have a problem with a legend being one basis of a ceremony.

Your reference to ‘minhag k’halacha’ I don’t think is apt here. The lighting of candles is halacha, but the legend of the oil miracle is aggadah, and even traditionally doesn’t have to be believed. The Hanukah prayer in the Siddur pointedly does not mention the oil miracle. Further, I don’t think Reconstructionist or Reform or even many Conservatives would accept the conservative spirit of ‘minhag k’halacha’; they would want to critically assess minhag even more than halacha before deciding to continue it as general Jewish practice.

Bill Berkson
Education Director

Toni Bloomberg Grossman, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD

This conversation is great on one hand. Discussing this issue is helping many of us come to a decision on how to approach the Hanukah miracle. On the other hand, I am not certain why this conversation is such a struggle for some of us.

Our children/students can grasp the miracle of Hanukah. The miracle as taught in both the Book of Maccabees and in Al HaNisim is great and what most believe to be true! The story of Hanukah can also be taught as an elaborated story that the rabbis once believed. I am not certain what could be wrong with that.

Every year, I tell lots of stories in order to help reinforce Jewish values. Children of all ages understand the power of a good story and they usually want more of the same whenever given the opportunity.

Both mythological and true stories guide us in our understanding of Judaism. So, why not let tradition to continue to guide us and children learn the truth. I see no reason to ever teach midrash or myth as truth. When we teach anything in life as being truth when it is not, we create a generation of people that are misinformed.


Education Director

Aaron Seidman, Shir Hadash, Newton, MA

One of the questions I ask, is what is the point of the story? Why did the Talmud present the story of the oil? I have a theory but not enough evidence to assert a solid basis for it.

In this case I suspect the main reason was pagan practice. The Mishnah has some brief references to the rules for Hanukah, indicating that by the end of the second century C.E. there was already a custom of kindling lights at the darkest period of the year. This was a custom that may have been imported from the northern latitudes during Roman rule — perhaps in imitation of the Roman Saturnalia observances. Sometime between then and the completion of Gemara, the celebration of lights assumed greater significance and, just as today we elevate the observance of Hanukah in order to offset the influence of Christmas, so the rabbis probably built up the idea of a miracle connected with the lights, to show Jews that we had our own basis for a solstice observance.*

The second question I ask is what can the story teach us? My own take — and I suspect many of you have better insights — is that we are being shown that one is to try to illuminate the darkness and this can be done by study, by bringing cheer to one’s family and community, by helping those in need.


*I used to think that it was also to deflect attention from Hasmonean military success, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve concluded that that was only a side effect. By the time the oil story was invented, Jewish revolt was a thing of the past, but assimilation was a real threat and it was the pagan lights that were the dangerous attraction.

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