This evening is the first night of Hanukkah/Hanukah/Chanukah — and what better way is there to celebrate than with a holiday story? Here is “The Cave of Mattathias,” a tale that originated in Eastern Europe and was passed down in the oral tradition. It is one of many stories included in Howard Schwartz’s Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales. Happy Hanukah!
In a village near the city of Riminov there was a Hasid whose custom it was to bring newly made oil to Reb Menachem Mendel of Riminov, and the rabbi would light the first candle of Hanukah in his presence.
One year the winter was hard, the land covered with snow, and everyone was locked in his home. But when the eve of Hanukah arrived, the Hasid was still planning to deliver the oil. His family pleaded with him not to go, but he was determined, and in the end he set out across the deep snow.
That morning he entered the forest that separated his village from Riminov, and the moment he did, it began to snow. The snow fell so fast that it covered every landmark, and when at last it stopped, the Hasid found that he was lost. The whole world was covered with snow.
Now the Hasid began to regret not listening to his family. Surely the rabbi would have forgiven his absence. Meanwhile, it had become so cold that he began to fear he might freeze. He realized that if he were to die there in the forest, he might not even be taken to a Jewish grave. That is when he remembered the oil he was carrying. In order to save his life, he would have to use it. There was no other choice.
As quickly as his numb fingers could move, he tore some of the lining out of his coat and fashioned it into a wick, and he put that wick into the snow. Then he poured oil on it and prayed with great intensity. Finally, he lit the first candle of Hanukah, and the flame seemed to light up the whole forest. And all the wolves moving through the forest saw that light and ran back to their hiding places.
After this the exhausted Hasid lay down on the snow and fell asleep. He dreamed he was walking in a warm land, and before him he saw a great mountain, and next to that mountain stood a palm tree. At the foot of the mountain was the opening of a cave. In the dream, the Hasid entered the cave and found a candle burning there. He picked up that candle, and it lit the way for him until he came to a large cavern, where an old man with a very long beard was seated. There was a sword on his thigh, and his hands were busy making wicks. All of that cavern was piled high with bales of wicks. The old man looked up when the Hasid entered and said: “Blessed be you in the Name of God.”
The Hasid returned the old man’s blessing and asked him who he was. He answered: “I am Mattathias, father of the Maccabees. During my lifetime I lit a big torch. I hoped that all of Israel would join me, but only a few obeyed my call. Now heaven has sent me to watch for the little candles in the houses of Israel to come together to form a very big flame. And that flame will announce the Redemption and the End of Days.
“Meanwhile, I prepare the wicks for the day when everyone will contribute his candle to this great flame. And now, there is something that you must do for me. When you reach the Rabbi of Riminov, tell him that the wicks are ready, and he should do whatever he can to light the flame that we have awaited so long.”
Amazed at all he had heard, the Hasid promised to give the message to the rabbi. As he turned to leave the cave, he awoke and found himself standing in front of the rabbi’s house. Just then the rabbi himself opened the door, and his face was glowing. He said: “The power of lighting the Hanukah candles is very great. Whoever dedicates his soul to this deed brings the time of Redemption that much closer.”
Howard Schwartz is Professor of English at the University of Missouri — St. Louis. He is the author of many books, including Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2005. Read a story from Gabriel’s Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales here: “The Blind Angel.”