A grandmother was overheard giving directions to her grown grandson, who was coming to visit for Chanukah with his wife. “You come to the front door of the apartment complex. I am in apartment 14T.”

She continued, “There is a big panel at the door. With your elbow, push button 14T. I will buzz you in. Come inside; the elevator is on the right. Get in, and with your elbow, hit 14. When you get out, I am on the left. With your elbow, hit my doorbell.”

“Grandma, that sounds easy,” replied the grandson, “but why am I hitting all these buttons with my elbow?”

To which she answered, “You’re coming emptyhanded?”

Celebrating What?

“What is Chanukah?” The Talmud asks this question, and then provides what seems to be an incomplete answer:

When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary [in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem], they contaminated all its oil. Then, when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered them and was victorious over them, they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the high priest—enough to light the menorah for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. The following year, they established these [eight days] as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving for G‑d.1

But isn’t there more to Chanukah than that?

The miracle of the oil is the only element of the Chanukah events that we commemorate today, by lighting menorahs for eight days. We have no customs or rituals commemorating a miraculous military triumph. What about the extraordinary military victory of the Maccabees, a small and dedicated force of Jewish fighters, against one of the great imperial powers of classical antiquity, the Seleucid branch of Alexander the Great’s empire?

Why doesn’t the Talmud even mention that miracle?

In fact, of the two, the miracle of the oil lasting eight days seems peripheral and practically irrelevant, considering the near-extinction the Jews faced.

Let’s look at the historical context of this war between the Greeks and the Jews.

It was the year 164 BCE, some two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Israel was then under the rule of the Seleucid empire, based in Syria. A Syrian ruler, Antiochus IV, ascended the throne and was determined to impose his values on the Jewish people. He forbade the practice of Judaism, set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple, and systematically desecrated Jerusalem’s holy sites. Jews who were caught practicing Judaism were tortured to death.

If Antiochus would have had his way, Judaism would have died.

And yet, in the Talmud, the miracle of the Jewish people’s survival is overshadowed by the survival of a cruse of oil!

Moreover, the miracle of the oil is the only element of the Chanukah events that we commemorate today, by lighting menorahs for eight days. We have no customs or rituals commemorating a miraculous military triumph.

How are we to understand this imbalance in our commemoration of the two miracles?

Sight and Sound

Antiochus IV was a unique enemy of the Jews, arguably unlike any who came before or after him.

While others were concerned with issues of state—Pharaoh feared a future Jewish revolt, and Haman despised their particularistic nature and refusal to assimilate—Antiochus was concerned with matters of “church,” with the “childish” and “primitive” faith and practices to which the Jews continued to cling despite the progressive era of enlightenment which the Greeks had ushered into the world.

While throughout history Jews suffered at the hands of those who sought to eradicate the Jewish faith, Antiochus was bothered by the existence of faith itself. He recognized and acknowledged only the mind and body, while the Jews believed in a soul within man and creation. He saw nature as the force that governs the world, while the Jews saw nature as an instrument and creation of a supernatural G‑d.

To the ancient Greeks, if something wasn’t seeable or understandable, it simply wasn’t. There is another difference between ancient Greece and Israel. The Greeks were the supreme masters of the visual arts: art, sculpture, architecture and the theater;2 the Jews, as a matter of religious principle, were not. G‑d, the sole object of worship, is invisible. He transcends nature. He created the universe and is therefore beyond the universe. He cannot be seen.3

This distinction between Jewish and Greek culture is not random; it is deeply rooted in their respective ideologies.

To the ancient Greeks, if something wasn’t seeable or understandable, it simply wasn’t. They claimed that if G‑d’s existence could not be proven in a science lab, it could not be proven at all. It was their philosophy that gave birth to the idiom, “Seeing is believing.”

To the Jew, however, sound, not sight, was paramount. G‑d revealed Himself through speech4 alone. To quote Moses: “Then the L‑rd spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.”5

To the Jew, reality is not defined by, or confined to, that which is apparent, visible and tangible.

Thus, ancient Greece was a culture of the eye, and ancient Israel a culture of the ear.6

This is how one writer and historian put it:

[The ancient Greeks were] the people of sight, of the spatial and plastic sense . . . as if they thought to transpose the flowing, fleeting, ever-related elements of life into rest, space, limitation . . . The Jew did not see so much as he heard . . . His organ was the ear . . . When Elijah perceived God, he heard only a still, small voice. For that reason the Jew never made an image of his God.7

A listening culture is not the same as a seeing culture. Judaism’s way of understanding and relating to the world is fundamentally different from that of the Greeks, and of the philosophical tradition they (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others) founded.

This was the crux of the Jewish-Greek conflict. It may have resulted in a political war, but it stemmed from a battle of ideas.

It was this war of spirit over matter, of faith over Hellenism, and of the pursuit of meaning over materialism that was won, not on the physical battlefield through spears and swords, but in the Holy Temple through the menorah and a small cruse of oil.

And while the military victory was temporary, the religious one still endures.

A little over two centuries after the Chanukah story took place, in 69 CE, the Temple was destroyed, this time by the Romans. Jerusalem was plundered, Israel was decimated and the Jewish people were exiled. It was the beginning of a period of Jewish subjection, dispersion and persecution which has lasted almost two millennia.

Yet the spiritual miracle—the faith that carried our people through thick and thin—like the oil, remains inextinguishable.

As Mark Twain famously put it:

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.

As for Twain’s question: “What is the secret of his immortality?” I believe the Chanukah story answers that.