The Hanukkah/ Chanuka (take your pick) holiday is likely the most mysterious on the Jewish calendar.
Why celebrate finding a bottle of oil at all?
And even if you’re going to do that, why forever? Since the whole event took place in the middle of a bloody war, how did the Rabbis even find time to create a new ruling on this matter, and why? And in wartime, who witnessed that it was even true?
There are many more questions, too: If the Temple itself was defiled by all the corpses of dead priests and soldiers strewn about, why was undefiled oil important? Most importantly, with a war that was won by the underdog but just barely, why is there no commemoration of the victory?
I believe that all the above questions can be answered by an understanding of the way the rabbinate enacted all commemorations.
All Jewish holidays are of either biblical or rabbinic origin.
The biblical holidays, like Passover, Sukkot, and Yom Kippur, remind us of specific historical events and were mandated by God in the Old Testament, the Torah. The rabbinic holidays such as Chanukah, Purim, and Lag Ba’omer were instituted by the rabbinate of the era in which the event occurred.
Rabbinic holidays have several distinguishing features, the most obvious being that they are not required to be days away from work, and it is hard to understand what they are really about. This is due to the historical fact that the Jews, for most of history, were ruled by outside governments that were usually brutal oppressors. It thus became an important value to be extremely careful not to upset those powers, especially with hints of treason.
The result of that care was that any event connected in any way to Jewish self-rule was carefully veiled behind layers of metaphor and secrecy, creating a very carefully-designed celebration that would not offend the sensitive barbarian temper. This isn’t a Da-Vinci code type of secrecy, it’s simply a self-protective move.
A public celebration of a Maccabean victory over the Greco-Syrian army would be sure to upset any foreign power intent on keeping their Jewish citizens docile. Charges of suspected dual loyalties have always been an issue for Jews- witness the Dreyfus trial in France.
Thus it is that the holiday commemorates a war and a victory that re-established Jewish sovereignty over Israel but does so in a way that one must decode to understand.
It is only today’s vastly better educations and the freedoms we enjoy in the USA that make it even possible to openly announce this!