Chanukah and The Stick of Joseph:
“A Great Miracle Happened There”

By Ya’akov ben Y’hudah

The central ceremony in celebrating Chanukah, is the lighting of the Chanukah menorah. Why do we light candles for eight nights? We read in the Talmud:

What is the reason for Chanukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev begin the days of Chanukah, which are eight, during which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they [the Maccabees] searched and found only one cruse of oil which possessed the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for only one day’s lighting; yet a miracle occurred there and they lit [the lamp] for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recitation of Hallel and thanksgiving (b.Shabbat 21b).

One day’s supply of oil miraculously burned for eight days, giving sufficient time to prepare a greater supply and continue the lighting. Thus, we light candles for eight nights. 

But did you know that there is an important prophetic connection between the Feast of Chanukah and the coming forth of The Stick of Joseph? The connection lies in an earlier Chanukah “Miracle of the Oil” recorded in 2 Maccabees.

The Second Book of the Maccabees opens with two letters. The second of these is from Judas Maccabee and the “Senate” (the Council of Elders of the time) to Aristoblus, who was leader of the large Jewish community in Alexandria, explaining to them why they should keep the Feast of Chanukah. In this letter, Judas Maccabee writes:

18. Since on the twenty-fifth day of Chislev we shall celebrate the purification of the temple, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you also may celebrate the feast of booths and the feast of the fire given when Nehemiah, who built the temple and the altar, offered sacrifices.

19. For when our fathers were being led captive to Persia, the pious priests of that time took some of the fire of the altar and secretly hid it in the hollow of a dry cistern, where they took such precautions that the place was unknown to any one.

20 . But after many years had passed, when it pleased God, Nehemiah, having been commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to get it. And when they reported to us that they had not found fire but thick liquid, he ordered them to dip it out and bring it.

21. And when the materials for the sacrifices were presented, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle the liquid on the wood and what was laid upon it.

22. When this was done and some time had passed and the sun, which had been clouded over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled.

23. And while the sacrifice was being consumed, the priests offered prayer — the priests and every one. Jonathan led, and the rest responded, as did Nehemiah.

24. The prayer was to this effect: “O Lord, Lord God, Creator of all things, who art awe-inspiring and strong and just and merciful, who alone art King and art kind,

25. who alone art bountiful, who alone art just and almighty and eternal, who dost rescue Israel from every evil, who didst choose the fathers and consecrate them,

26. accept this sacrifice on behalf of all thy people Israel and preserve thy portion and make it holy.

27. Gather together our scattered people, set free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look upon those who are rejected and despised, and let the Gentiles know that thou art our God.

28. Afflict those who oppress and are insolent with pride.

29. Plant thy people in thy holy place, as Moses said.”

30. Then the priests sang the hymns.

31. And when the materials of the sacrifice were consumed, Nehemiah ordered that the liquid that was left should be poured upon large stones.

32. When this was done, a flame blazed up; but when the light from the altar shone back, it went out.

33. When this matter became known, and it was reported to the king of the Persians that, in the place where the exiled priests had hidden the fire, the liquid had appeared with which Nehemiah and his associates had burned the materials of the sacrifice,

34. the king investigated the matter, and enclosed the place and made it sacred.

35. And with those persons whom the king favored he exchanged many excellent gifts.

36. Nehemiah and his associates called this “nephthar,” which means purification, but by most people it is called “naphtha.”

(2 Maccabees 1:18-36 RSV)

In the passage above, 2 Maccabees refers to Chanukah as “the feast of booths and the feast of the fire” because, according to the books of the Maccabees, the first Chanukah was a belated Sukkot celebration (1 Macc. 4:36-61; 2 Macc. 10:1-9).

According to the KJV reading of 2 Maccabees 1:36, Nehemiah called this substance Naphtar but many people called it Nephi

In the Greek text of 2 Maccabees Naphtar is Nephthar and Nephi was rendered Nephthaei. In the Aramaic Peshitta text the two words are נפתר (Nephtar) and נפתי (Nephti). There is a Mishnaic Hebrew word נפט nephet which is used in the Talmud to refer to petroleum oil. 

So how does the Nephti present a type and shadow of the Nephites and their record? 

  • Like the Nephti (using the Peshitta Aramaic version of the word), the Nephites were removed from Jerusalem not long before the beginning of the Babylonian captivity, and taken to a place of safety.
  • And like the Nephti, the Nephite record (The Stick of Joseph) was buried in the earth, hidden away to be brought forth at a later time of restoration.
  • The story of the Nephti parallels the miracle of the oil at the time of the Maccabees. Likewise, The Stick of Joseph parallels the the Chanukah light. It is the Nephti, hidden away and brought forth in the last days as a light to the world.  

So when we say “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” (A Great Miracle Happened There) let us remember not only the miracle of the oil, let us also remember the miracle of the coming forth of The Stick of Joseph. As we light the Chanukah lights, let us remember this great light as well.