What is the Talmudic source for Ḥanukah?

In discussing candles for Shabbath, the Talmud (Shab. 21b) goes into a discussion about candles generally, touching upon Ḥanukah candles, and ultimately asks, "Mai Ḥanukah?" - "What is Ḥanukah?" - and from there goes into a brief discussion of the origins of the holiday. In Hebrew schools and Yeshivoth it is frequently taught, simplistically, that this is the "source" in the Gemara for Ḥanukah and that the Mishnah makes no mention of it (for reasons outside the scope of this question). But that's actually not true. This discussion in Shabbath draws from other places in the Talmud that discuss the holiday and its ritual lighting, most significantly pointing to the law in the last Mishnah in B"K, ch. 6, discussed in Bava Kama 62b, that one is not financially culpable if a damaging fire is ignited (G-d forbid) from one's Ḥanukah candles that were placed outside. If one were to look at the volumes of the Talmud and try to determine which came first - or, more precisely, which draws upon which, one would have to conclude that the B"K mention is the source, as the Mishnah predates the Gemara in Shab. But is the Mishnah the source for the Gemara, or is there another source that is not mentioned? I know that Megillath Ta'anith mentions Ḥanukah. Could that be considered the source?

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    I don't understand the question. Don't all masechtos in the Talmud draw upon the entirety of the mishna? The mishna in Bava Kamma mentions chanuka lights in passing. But only the gemara in Shabbos fleshes out exactly what Chanuka is.
    – jake
    Dec 15, 2011 at 19:26
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    I also don't understand the question. Chanukah is mentioned in several places but those couple pages in Shabbat are where it's explained as opposed to mentioned tangentially, no? Dec 15, 2011 at 19:30
  • I also don't understand the question, maybe edit it and explain what it is you are asking and why. It seems you are basing the question on the Talmud but it is not clear how or why. Dec 15, 2011 at 20:11
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    On the last point of the revised question: the baraisa quoted in the Gemara (in response to "mai Chanukah" is indeed from Megillas Taanis. So yes, that probably would be considered the primary source (and indeed, Megillas Taanis predates the final arrangement of the Mishnah by R. Yehudah Hanassi).
    – Alex
    Dec 16, 2011 at 16:36
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    @SethJ I'm curious why you don't ask about the book of Maccabees as "the source"?
    – avi
    Dec 17, 2011 at 16:39

3 Answers 3


There is no "source" for Hanukkah any more than there is a source for Tisha B'Av. You can point to the earliest known reference to the day in print (for Hanukkah, that would be Maccabees I), but that text won't serve as the "source" for all later treatments of the concept any more than you could say that discourse today concerning the Vietnam War is all somehow "sourced" in the first printed publication to have dealt with it. Hanukkah was a cultural celebration that evolved organically, like all cultural celebrations, and that subsequently came to be commemorated in the literature.

Major treatments of Hanukkah, in chronological order, include Maccabees I, Maccabees II and Josephus. The Mishna, as you point out, has nothing to say about what Hanukkah is, but testifies to a familiarity with it as a Jewish festival. In only one instance does the Mishna provide any information about Hanukkah, and that's the section to which you refer, in Bava Qama 6:6. The placement of a lamp outside one's property is something that later sources would refer to as פרסומי ניסא (publicising the festival), but there is as yet no reference to an actual miracle associated with the occasion. (Josephus, incidentally, notes that it is called the festival of lights, but also freely acknowledges that he doesn't known why.)

This reticence on the part of authors to explain the nature of the day (there being no Masekhet Hanukkah, for example) is the reason as to why the gemara commences its treatment by asking the question: מאי חנוכה? What actually is it? That passage, in Tractate Shabbat, is the oldest literary reference to the miracle of the oil. It would subsequently be quoted almost verbatim in the commentary to Megillat Taanit.


Standard thing you'll hear in yeshivas eventually: the vowelization here isn't "mai chanukah?" ("what's chanukah"); it's "me-ei chanukah" -- from where is Chanukah? (or for you English majors, whence Chanukah?). And the Gemara answers with the story of the Hasmoneans.

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    Nice vort, but I'm not so certain it's correct on a peshat level. The Gemara will sometimes mention a term, later ask "mai X," and reply with a baraisa or something that defines it. (Another example is in Kesubos 28b.) So here too: having mentioned a couple of laws about Chanukah, the Gemara seeks a definition of it.
    – Alex
    Dec 15, 2011 at 20:10

See Pri Tzadik Chelek Aleph on the first chapter on Chanukah (page 136 in the more common edition:

He asks the question why are the laws of Chanukah discussed in the Talmud in Shabbos and rather one would think it should follow the Mishna in Bava Kamma. He answers briefly that the candles of Chanukah are 'the same sort' as Shabbos candles. I was looking for the source of this idea and found this post and thought this information might be of interest. So, yes the Talmudic source of Chanukah is in tractate Shabbos. It is a good question as to why Shabbos and not Bava Kamma which is the only mention of Chanukah in the mishna. Furthermore since Chanukah candles are in memory of the temple menorah lighting why isn't Chanukah mentioned in tractate Menachos? I think the questions are more important than the answers. Because there could be infinitely many answers.

  • Welcome to Mi Yodeya, Boruch, and happy Chanukah! I'm not sure if this answers the question, although it is interesting. The question wasn't where it is discussed, as the questioner knew that, but what is the "original source" for it. Dec 19, 2014 at 20:29
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    "the only mention of Chanukah in the mishna" is in Bava Kamma - this is incorrect. It appears in Bikkurim, Rosh Hashanah, Taanis, Megillah (twice), and Moed Katan as well.
    – Ypnypn
    Nov 8, 2015 at 4:29

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