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What Was the Original Name of the ‘Chanukah’ Holiday?

Today we all assume that the name of the holiday was always “Chanukah.” (We only fight about its spelling!) The truth is that there are early sources with a different name for the holiday.

Admittedly, when we look at the Mishnah (a source in its final compilation dated to around 200 C.E.), the holiday is called “Chanukah.” The holiday is referred to by this name in seven scattered places: Bikkurim 1:6, Rosh Hashanah 1:3, Taanit 2:10, Megillah 3:4 and 3:6, Moed Katan 3:9, and Bava Kama 6:6. (This is also the way the holiday is referred to in “Al Ha-Nissim,” but the date of “Al Ha-Nissim” is subject to debate, and we cannot be certain that our entire text today is Tannaitic.)

Let us look at other early sources for the name of the holiday:

—Megillat Taanit: The earliest layer of Megillat Taanit is the Aramaic portion which briefly lists each holiday and its date. This layer was perhaps composed around 50 C.E. and was based on earlier material. Here the holiday is referred to as “Chanukat Temanya Yamin” (=Chanukat Shemonat Yamim.)

—I Maccabees: At verse 4:58, in the widely used Hebrew version by A. Cahana, the holiday is referred to as “yemei chanukat ha-mizbeach.” I Maccabees dates to around 100 BCE. (In some editions, this verse is 4:59.)

Of course, the original Hebrew of I Maccabees has been lost for centuries. The last person to mention seeing the original Hebrew is the church father Jerome (4th cent.). What survived over the centuries is the Greek translation and Cahana has translated the Greek back into Hebrew. I am willing to trust that Cahana has made an acceptable translation.

—II Maccabees, First Appended Letter: This is stated to be a letter from the Jews of Jerusalem to the Jews of Egypt. It is dated to the year “188” on the Seleucid era (=124 or 123 B.C.E). Whether the letter is authentic is a separate issue.

In this letter, at 1:9, we have: “And now we ask you to celebrate the Days of Tabernacles in the Month of Kislev.” I am looking at an English translation of the letter, translating it from the Greek. (The Greek word used here is not “Tabernacles;” it is “Skanopagia.” It means “the setting up of tents.” This is the Greek word used to translate the holiday of “Sukkot” in the Torah.)

As further background, II Macc. 10:6-8 has the following passage: “Joyfully they held an eight-day celebration, after the pattern of Tabernacles, remembering how a short time before they spent the festival of Tabernacles like wild beasts, in the mountains and in the caves. Therefore, holding wreathed wands, and branches bearing ripe fruit, and palm fronds, they offered songs of praise to Him Who had victoriously brought about the purification of His Place. By vote of the commonwealth they decreed a rule for the entire nation of the Jews to observe these days annually.”

—II Maccabees, Second Appended Letter: This letter states that it is a letter from Jerusalem and Judea to the Jews of Egypt. It purports to be written at the time of the rededication (in 164 B.C.E.), but is generally viewed as not authentic. It was likely written in Greek. Even though not written when it purports to have been written, it is still a source from around 100 B.C.E.

Here, at 1:18, we have: “Inasmuch as we are about to celebrate, on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the Purification of the Temple, we thought we ought to let you know, so that you, too, might celebrate it as Days of Tabernacles and Days of the Fire….” See also, Second Introductory Letter, 2:16: “We are about to celebrate the Purification.” (The Greek words used for “Purification” here are “catharismon” and “catarismon,” related to the English word “catharsis.”)

—Josephus, writing in Rome in the last decade of the first century C.E., records: “So much pleasure did they find in the renewal of their customs and in unexpectedly obtaining the right to have their own service after so long a time, that they made a law that their descendants should celebrate the restoration of the temple service for eight days. And from that time to the present we observe this festival, which we call the Festival of Lights, giving this name to it, I think, from the fact that the right to worship appeared to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it.” The Greek word he uses for “Lights” is “phota.” See his Antiquities,XII, paras. 324-325. I have seen it suggested that Josephus was recording the name of the holiday that was popular with the people in Israel.

(A few lines earlier Josephus had written that the Jews had “kindled the lights on the lampstand and burned incense on the altar and set out the loaves on the table and offered whole burnt-offerings upon the new altar.” He used the word “phota” for “lights” here too. He could have connected the name “phota” with this earlier event, but did not. The kindling of the above lights by Judah and his men is mentioned in 1 Maccabees, chap. 4. Admittedly, it was only one of the many activities they did in the Temple as part of their renewal activities and we do not have to assume it was a central one.)

—Finally, if I may quote from a Christian source: At John 10:22 we have: “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the egkainia, and it was winter.” The Greek word used here means something like “renovation/reconsecration.” It is widely agreed that the reference is to Chanukah. The book of John dates to approximately 100 C.E.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. On the subject of names, Mitchell First has a distant relative named “Last.”

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