Despite all their shortcomings, the victories that the Hasmoneans achieved had great value. The political independence that they won, though limited, contributed to the prosperity of the Jewish population in Eretz Yisrael in every way. Previously, around forty percent of Judea’s produce was taken by the Greeks as a tax; now all of it remained in Eretz Yisrael, stimulating economic growth. By virtue of the victories, Jewish settlements sprung up throughout the country, Jews immigrated from the Diaspora, birthrates rose, and the Jewish nation, which had undergone destruction and exile, rehabilitated itself, to a large degree.
Through the protection afforded by political independence, Eretz Yisrael became, once again, the national and spiritual center of the Jewish people. Houses of study grew and flourished, fully expressing the injunction of the Men of the Great Assembly: “Produce many disciples and make a fence for the Torah” (Avot 1:1). The spiritual foundations of the Oral Torah, which enabled Jewry to safeguard its faith and its Torah for 2,000 years of harsh exile, were laid in those days.
For this reason, the miracle of the oil expresses Ĥanuka more than any other symbol. Although the Second Temple was destroyed and all the political achievements of the Hasmoneans were lost, the study of the Oral Torah, which developed and crystallized during that period, endured forever. The miracle of the oil manifested the eternal dimension of the Torah, its ability to illuminate the darkness supernaturally. By virtue of the Torah, we managed to survive the long, dark exile. The miracle of the oil showed that the Jewish people are unique, different from all other nations, and that it is impossible to subdue us or extinguish our faith.
It was in the merit of the self-sacrifice of Matityahu and his sons that the deep foundations of the Torah and the uniqueness of the Jewish people were revealed. But the Hasmonean dynasty, with all its problems and complexities, was short-lived, and we do not commemorate it in a particularly celebratory manner.
This explains the Sages’ statement (rh 18b) that the holiday of Ĥanuka endures because of the miracle of the oil and the rabbinic mitzva of lighting the candles. The miracle of the oil showed that the military victory over the Greeks did not benefit that generation alone, but all generations. Therefore, the Sages determined that we should continue observing Ĥanuka even though the other holidays mentioned in Megilat Ta’anit were abolished after the Temple was destroyed. Thus, in addition to the mitzva of lighting candles all eight nights of Ĥanuka, we recite Al Ha-nisim and Hallel, to thank and praise God for saving us and allowing us to defeat our enemies.
Over the years, it became clear that the miracle was even greater than we originally thought. Not only did we manage to survive the torrent of Hellenism that inundated the world, but Judaism shattered – through a long and complicated process – most of the pagan foundations of Hellenism. The abstract belief in one God, ethical values, the aspiration to fix the world – all fundamental principles of the Torah – increasingly spread among the nations of the world, eventually becoming, through means both direct and indirect (i.e., via Christianity and Islam), the foundations of all the good and beneficial aspects of human culture.
The longer our exile lasted, the longer and brighter the light of Israel and its Torah shone. It will continue to illuminate the world until we merit bringing new and pure oil from the olives of Eretz Yisrael, from which we will light the Menora of the Holy Temple, and the world will be filled with the knowledge of God, speedily in our time. Amen.
Rambam further emphasizes the national-political victory:
During the Second Temple era, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people, abolishing their religion and refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and its mitzvot. They did violence against their property and their daughters; they entered the Temple, wrought havoc within, and made the sacraments impure. The Jews suffered great difficulties from them, for they oppressed them greatly until the God of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overpowered [the Greeks], killed them, and saved the Jews from their hand. They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for over 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple. (mt, Laws of Ĥanuka 3:1)
This means that the miracle of the oil symbolizes the triumph of faith and Torah over Hellenism. It is the basis for the fact that Ĥanuka is a perpetual holiday. However, we would not have been privileged to receive the everlasting mitzva of lighting the candles or the triumph of faith if not for the miracle of the military victory – the righteous defeating the wicked – and the other national achievements, as described in Al Ha-nisim. This is why we praise God specifically by reciting Hallel, since the Sages prescribed that we recite Hallel mainly to commemorate times when the Jewish people were delivered from bondage or saved from death. Hence, Rambam emphasizes the national aspects of Ĥanuka. This also explains why Rambam emphasizes the joy of Ĥanuka, as he writes later: “Accordingly, the Sages of that generation decreed that these eight days, beginning from the 25th of Kislev, be commemorated as days of joy and praise. Candles should be lit…” (ibid. 3:3). (It may be that Rambam viewed the military victory as the primary miracle, contrary to what I wrote in the first section of this chapter, based on the opinion of several Rishonim.) For more on this issue and the following discussion, see the essay in Orot titled essay “Le-mahalakh Ha-idei’ot,” where Rav Kook explains that the Second Temple era prepared the Jews for the subsequent exile, by absorbing sacred vitality from the Temple and integrating it into the Oral Torah that accompanied the Jews into exile. See also the essay titled “Ĥakham Adif Mi-navi,” and Orot Ha-Torah, ch. 1.