Posted on

Half the Hanukkah Story

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith


Two themes are central to the festival of Hanukkah which we welcome this week. They are, first, the nes milhamah, the miraculous victory of the few over the many and the weak over the strong as the Jews repulsed the Syrian-Greeks and reestablished their independence. The second theme is nes shemen, the miracle of the oil, which burned in the Temple for eight days although the supply was sufficient for only one day. The nes milhamah represents the success of the military and political enterprise of the Maccabees, whilst the nes shemen, the miracle of the oil, symbolizes the victory of the eternal Jewish spirit. Which of these is emphasized is usually an index to one’s Weltanschauung. Thus, for instance, secular Zionism spoke only of the nes milhamah, the military victory, because it was interested in establishing the nationalistic base of modern Jewry. The Talmud, however, asking “What is Hanukkah?” answered with the nes shemen, with the story of the miracle of the oil (Shabbat 21b). In this way, the Rabbis demonstrated their unhappiness with the whole Hasmonean dynasty, descendants of the original Maccabees who became Sadducees, denied the Oral Law, and persecuted the Pharisees.

Yet it cannot be denied that both of these themes are integral parts of Judaism. Unlike Christianity, we never relegated religion to a realm apart from life, we never assented to the bifurcation between that which belongs to God and that which belongs to Caesar. Religion was a crucial part, indeed the very motive, of the war against the Syrian-Greeks. And unlike the purely nationalistic interpretation of Hanukkah, we proclaim with the prophet (whose words we shall read next Sabbath), “For not by power nor by might, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6). In fact, the Maccabean war was, to a large extent, not a revolution against alien invaders as much as a civil war against Hellenistic Jews who wanted to strip Israel of its Jewish heritage. Hence, Hanukkah symbolizes a victory through military means for spiritual ends. That is why Rabbinic sources tell of both themes, the Pesikta speaking of the nes milhamah (Pesikta Rabbati 6) and the gemara speaking of the nes shemen.


The miracles of Hanukkah are sequential: first there was the nes milhamah, and then later came the nes shemen. This is reflected in our Al HaNissim prayer which we recite all through Hanukkah. We thank God for the miracle of our victory, for having given over gibborim beyad halashim, rabbim be-yad me‘attim, “the strong in the hands of the weak, and the many in the hands of the few,” veahar ken, “and afterwards,” ba’u banekha lidevir beitekha, “Thy children came into Thy holy habitation,” cleansed Thy Temple, purified Thy sanctuary, and kindled lights in Thy holy courts.

I submit that those two little words veahar ken, “and afterwards,” define the position of world Jewry today. We have finished one half the Hanukkah story. We have accomplished the nes milhamah, the miracle of military victory, and now we must proceed to the nes shemen, the miracle of the conquest of the Jewish spirit. We have realized the dream of the alummim; next we must proceed to the inspiring vision of the shemesh vekokhavim.