By Matt Blitz
June 22, 2017
© Sally Moskol / Getty Images

Every Jewish boy and girl hears the same Hanukkah story growing up: In ancient times, the sacred temple was destroyed. When the Maccabees went to rebuild it, they were only able to find enough olive oil to keep the candles burning for a single night. Miraculously, though, the oil burned for eight, allowing just enough time to find more. This is why we celebrate the eight-night "festival of lights" known as Hanukkah. We light candles and eat oil-fried foods like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) to commemorate the miracle. But, as is this case with most holiday origin stories, this simple explanation is likely incorrect.

Most scholars admit that the story of Hanukkah is hard to verify, convoluted, contradictory and a product of centuries of history and traditions that have been mashed together. In addition, it also seems it originally had little to do with oil.

According to the First Book of the Maccabees, the story starts about 2200 years ago when the land today we know today as Israel was called Judea, which was part of the Seleucid Empire and under the rule of King Antiochus IV. While his father King Antiochus III was relatively benevolent when it came to religious practice, the KA4 was not. In 168 BCE, he decided to outlaw all religions besides his own (a version of Greek polytheism). When many Jews refused to stop practicing, Antiochus sent soldiers into the holy city of Jerusalem where they massacred civilians and destroyed the city's Second Temple. In its place, he built an altar dedicated to Zeus complete with a big pig sacrifice (swine, of course, is not kosher). This led to a family of rebels known as the Maccabees (meaning "hammer") to revolt against Antiochus' forces. Despite being out manned, the Maccabees were able to expel the enemy and get their temple back. Soon after, they were able to rebuild and dedicate the temple once again. Hanukkah, which actually translates to "establishing" or "dedication," is actually the celebration of the temple being rededicated.

This relatively straightforward account paints the Maccabees something akin to Jewish superheroes, fighting for the religiously oppressed. However, many scholars argue that is hard to take this version at face value. It was written about 75 years after the fact and is nearly impossible to historically verify. Also, as Time Magazine points out, the source of this story has a particular angle - which was to demonize the Greeks.


What is particularly unusual is that the Second Book of the Maccabees, also written by Jewish scholars and around the same time, tells a slightly different story of Hanukkah. In the book, it explains that the Maccabees didn't revolt against the Greeks so much as their fellow so-called "Hellenized" Jews, who they felt were giving up and cheapening their religion to fit in better with their rulers. In a real twist, the Maccabees held a violent campaign against their own people, murdering and terrorizing those that didn't live up to their Jewish standard. Unable to defend themselves against the Maccabees, the "hellenized" Jews called in the King for help. Just like in the first book, the Maccabees are able to turn back Antiochus' soldiers, but not before the temple is destroyed as punishment. This interpretation of what amounted to a Jewish civil war has led some modern scholars to label the Maccabees zealots and extremists. However, the same issues with the first story exist here too - mainly, that's hard to historically verify. Either way, this account ends the same way as the first: A rededication of the temple and, hence, our celebration of Hanukkah.

The one similarity between the two accounts is that neither mentions anything about oil - although the rededication did coincide with the end of olive oil-making season. However, the main reason why oil has become part of this holiday is because of a passage in the Talmud. Written close to 500 years after the temple's destruction and 400 years after the Books of Maccabees, the Talmud - which are rabbinical teachings that expand on the Torah - tells the famous story about the oil lasting eight days when it should have only lasted one. Historians are unclear if this actually happened or if it's simply a fable attached to this celebration to tone down the violence.

Oh, but it's about to get even more violent. A lesser-known Hanukkah story that's part of the New Testament, but not the Old Testament (the reasons for this remain unclear) is the one about Judith. Taking place years before the Maccabees, the story goes that the beautiful Judith served up a basket of figs, bread and salty cheese to an invading king. When the King's mouth grew dry on account of the salty cheese, Judith thankfully had wine to quench his thirst. Charmed by Judith, the king drank enough wine that he fell into a drunken stupor. Then, she lopped off his head. Hence, the popularity of dairy meals on Hanukkah (even though, genetically, Jews have a higher rate of lactose intolerance than most).

As for latkes, the word is derived from Yiddish and Russian, meaning "small pancake." The word itself has nothing to do with potatoes, especially since the tuber didn't even exist in that part of the world during ancient times. The potato is native to South America (actually, today's Peru) and did not travel across oceans until many of thousands of years later. In actuality, latkes are more directly descended from Italian ricotta cheese pancakes. During the Middle Ages, these were all the rage during the holiday because they combined the two types of traditional food - fried and diary. In the mid-19th century, massive crop failures in Eastern Europe led to potatoes' rise in popularity because they were hearty and easy to grow. They were eaten at every meal, including holiday feasts. Cheese pancakes soon became potato pancakes. At the turn of the 20th century, an influx of Eastern Europe Jewish immigrants came upon America's shores. Their traditions became American Jewish traditions. Hence, potato pancakes regular appearances during Hanukkah.

So, maybe during Hanukkah this year, lay off the potato pancakes. Instead, try some salty cheese with a side of bloodlust.