Hanukah / Talmud

“The transformation of Hanukkah, as attested in the Babylonian Talmud, serves as an example of a religious dynamic stimulated by the arrival of new ‘religious knowledge'”

Religious tradition is adept at adaptation. The Babylonian Talmud, in particular, through analogy, and succinct comparison, draws the newcomer in and naturalizes it. The transformation of Hanukkah, as attested in the Babylonian Talmud, serves as an example of a religious dynamic stimulated by the arrival of new “religious knowledge.” This “religious knowledge” is negotiated through the prism of existing perceptions and rituals. The Babylonian Talmud’s reading of Hanukkah is not self-evident, natural, or inevitable. The seeds for this transformation were, indeed, embedded somewhere in the Palestinian tradition, but it was only in Babylonia where the environment was amenable to this growth that Hanukkah could evolve thus. It was here that the religious market facilitated exchange in the religious notions that impacted upon the way the festival was re-interpreted. The “miracle of the cruse of oil” tradition, the foundational basis for the centrality of candle lighting, perhaps best epitomizes the transformation that occurred in the image of the holiday. As it travelled from West to East, from Judaea to Babylonia, it changed from a festival of the rededication of the temple altar to a festival of the rededication of the temple candelabrum—an altar of fire.

Geoffrey Herman, “Religious Transformation Between East and West: Hanukkah in the Babylonian Talmud and Zoroastrianism”, in Religions and Trade: Religious Formation, Transformation and Cross-Cultural Exchange between East and West, ed. Peter Wick and Volker Rabens (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2014), 273.