Antecedents of the Hanukkah Oil Story

in Review of Rabbinic Judaism
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When the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21b) recounted the miracle of the oil’s lasting for eight days as the etiology of the festival of Hanukkah, they were basing themselves on biblical antecedents, in which the dedication of the Temple/tabernacle was accompanied by the descent of heavenly fire. Although there is no trace of the legend of the oil in any source before the Talmud, an analogous story is found in 2 Maccabees 1 in relation to Nehemiah, whose dedication of the Second Temple was accomplished through the fire of the First Temple, which had in the meanwhile liquefied into naphtha and was kept in an empty cistern. Another story that adumbrates the same themes is the discovery of the lost scroll under Josiah, which leads to the purification and renewal of the Temple. In each case an object from the past survives catastrophe or the reign of bad kings to provide continuity. A final case is the narrative of the building of the Temple in Ezra 6, in which the discovery of a lost scroll in the Achaemenid summer palace authorizes the construction. The Talmudic Hanukkah story is thus seen as a midrash based on biblical precedents.

Antecedents of the Hanukkah Oil Story

in Review of Rabbinic Judaism



Translation from Doran2 Maccabees—A Critical Commentary pp. 486–487.


Georg GäbelDie Kulttheologie des Hebräerbriefes (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck2006) pp. 44–45.


SchwartzThe Second Book of Maccabees p. 84 Doran 2 Maccabees—A Critical Commentary p. 49.


SchwartzThe Second Book of Maccabees p. 87. There is no other association of the festival of Hanukkah with fire in the Books of Maccabees; Doran Temple Propaganda p. 9.


Menahem KasherTorah Shelemah (Jerusalem: Torah Shelemah Institute1992) vol. 1 p. 311 n. 39.


See Nathaniel Helfgot“Unlocking the Riddle of Abraham the Iconoclast: A Study in the Intertextuality of Peshat and Derash,” in Tradition 34:3 Fall 2010 pp. 9–16.


Erich S. GruenHeritage and Hellesnism (Berkley: University of California Press1998) pp. 124–125 167–186.


Yehuda KielDa’at Mikra—2 Kings (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook1989) p. 779.


Mordechai Zer-KavodDa’at Mikra—Ezra and Nehemiah (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook1994) p. 39. A version of this idea was expressed earlier in the 18th century Metzudot David commentary to Ezra 6:2.


Keith N. SchovilleEzra-Nehemiah (Joplin: College Press Publishing2001) p. 89.


F. Charles FenshamThe Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.1982) p. 86.


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