Monday, December 22, 2008

Hanukkah - "The Jewish Answer to Christmas."

Chanukah: Festival of Lights

Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah) is probably the Jewish holiday with which non-Jews are most familiar, due to its proximity to Christmas. It is not, however, the "Jewish Christmas" - it historically predates Christmas and is a very different celebration.

History of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is one of the few Jewish holidays that is not instituted in the Torah. It commemorates a post-biblical event: the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek rulers of Jerusalem and the subsequent rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE. It also celebrates a miracle that accompanied this event: When the temple was rededicated, God miraculously made the one day's worth of oil burn brightly for eight days.

By the time of the Talmud (c. 500 CE), the political situation had changed and the tale of the Maccabees was no longer as popular. It seems the victorious Maccabees had become almost as oppressive as the previous regime and, even worse, their descendents allied themselves with the Romans. So in their discussion of Hanukkah the rabbis focused more on the legend of the miraculous oil than on the victory of the Maccabees.

For most of its history, Hanukkah has been a rather minor holiday. But in the late 19th century it began to gain popularity and today it is one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays (neck-and-neck with Passover, according to one source {1}).

This change seems to be due in part to the increasing popularity of Christmas gift-giving in the late 19th century, and the corresponding wish to offer an alternative, especially for children, that maintains Jewish identity and avoids assimilation. In addition, the Zionist movement, which arose in the late 19th century, found inspiration in the story of the Maccabees.

Hanukkah Observance

Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev (mid- to late-December). Since Hanukkah falls four days before the new moon (the darkest night of the month) and close to the winter solstice (the longest night of the year), it seems only natural that a key element of this holiday is light. In fact, one of its other names is the "Feast of Lights" (along with "Feast of Dedication" and "Feast of the Maccabees").

The only essential ritual of Hanukkah is the lighting of candles. The Hanukkah candles are held in a chanukkiah, a candelabra that holds nine candles. (The chanukkiah is different from a menorah, which is a candelabra that holds seven candles and is pictured on the official emblem of the State of Israel.) The candle (shammash) in the middle of the chanukkiah is used to light the others.

One candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, two are lit on the second, and so on, until all eight are lit on the eighth night. The candles are added from the right, but lit beginning with the first one on the left (representing the current night). During or after the lighting of the candles, these blessings are recited:

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Universal Presence, Who sanctifies us with the mitzvot and gives us this path of kindling the light of Hanukkah.

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Universal Presence, Who worked miracles for our ancestors in ancient days at this time.

On the first night of Hanukkah, a special blessing is added:

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Universal Presence, Who keeps us in Life always, Who supports the unfolding of our uniqueness, and Who brings us to this very moment for blessing.

Once they are lit, the candles may not be used for any other purpose, such as lighting other candles or reading by, and they must burn for at least a half an hour. The chanukkiah should be placed in a window to proclaim the miracle it represents (except in times of persecution, when to do so could endanger the family's lives).

In addition to the lighting of the candles, many other Hanukkah traditions have developed over the years. One favorite is eating fried foods in recognition of the miraculous oil. A customary Hanukkah treat that developed in Eastern Europe is the latke, a potato pancake fried in oil and served with applesauce or sour cream. Jews in Israel enjoy a sufganiot, a kind of jelly donut.

Another popular Hanukkah tradition is the game of "spin the dreidel." A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay, and shin drawn on each side. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, "A great miracle happened there," and they also stand for Yiddish words that represent the rules of the game: nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put).

Each player begins with an equal amount of nuts, pennies, M&Ms, or other small pieces, then the players take turns spinning the dreidel. Before each spin, each person puts one piece into the pot. If the spin lands on nun, nothing happens. If it lands on gimel (one Jewish author knows this as "gimme!"), the player collects all the pieces and everyone antes up again. A result of hay means the player takes half the pieces in the pot, and shin requires the player to put one more piece in the pot.

The origin of the dreidel game is not clear. One theory is that it was used as as protection in times of persecution: to avoid being caught studying the Torah, Jews would quickly pull out the dreidels and pretend they were gambling.

A more recent tradition associated with Hanukkah is gift-giving, which by all accounts derives directly from Hanukkah's proximity to Christmas. Many Jewish families have adopted the tradition of giving small gifts to their children to alleviate jealousy of non-Jewish friends who celebrate Christmas. Gifts are not exchanged with anyone else, however, and Hanukkah gifts generally tend to be smaller than their Christmas counterparts.


  1. Ted Falcon, Judaism for Dummies, p. 258.
  2. Chanukah - Judaism 101


Roman soldiers carrying the menorah from the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 ce; detail of a relief on the Arch of Titus, Rome, 81 ce. Alinari/Art Resource, New York

Festival of Light or Nationalist Triumph?

I’ve always felt ambivalent about Hanukah. American Jews seem to have elevated Hanukah far out of all proportion considering its role as a minor holiday in the traditional Jewish calendar. I’ve always thought this was because Jews felt left out of the Christmas holiday. They used Hanukah as a sort of consolation prize.

On the other hand, Hanukah is a graceful and lovely holiday. Lighting candles and watching them burn brightly in the dark while the cold winter rages outside always struck me as a brave and beautiful ritual. The eating of hot, sizzling potato latkes, the spinning of the dreidel and the sharing of golden Hanukah gelt (chocolate money) is also great fun, especially for children.

Last night, I heard an especially convincing rabbinic drash given by Rabbi Ted Falcon, which put Hanukah into even deeper perspective for me. The holiday’s history goes something like this: after Alexander the Great died, his kingdom was divided. The Greek Selucids took over the region of ancient Israel. Unlike Alexander, they did not believe in allowing subject peoples to practice their ethnic and religious heritage. The Holy Temple was defiled and Jewish practice was suppressed.

The Jewish priestly class, led by Matathias and his family, began what turned out to be a highly successful guerilla war against the Selucids and their tyrannical king, Antiochus. But the Maccabean warriors killed not only Greeks, they also killed Jews who they viewed as collaborators (or “Hellenizers”) with the enemy. It was a long, bloody conflict.

The irony of history is that these Jewish warriors founded the Hasmonean dynasty, which in time did all the evil, rotten things that they accused the Hellenizers of doing. The corruption and decadence of the Hasmoneans later led to Israel’s fall into the hands of the Romans.

The Talmudic rabbis, for one, felt even more uncomfortable about Hanukah than I do. When they met in Yavneh around 80 CE (that’s AD to the rest of you) to codify the books of the Bible, there were NO votes to include the Books of the Maccabees (the books which tell the Hanukah story). They are now included in the Apocrypha. Not only did the rabbis feel extraordinarily uncomfortable with the gore and mayhem described in these works; but the development of the rabbinate itself was an act of rebellion against the corrupt Hasmonean rulers. Rabbis were a learned class who earned their positions not through heredity or privilege, but through learning and a type of democratic elective choice.

The rabbis tried to turn the Hanukah holiday inside out in terms of expressing its meaning to the Jewish people: instead of a holiday marking bloodthirsty deeds of nationalist fury, the rabbis created the mythical miracle of the Holy Temple’s perpetually-burning lamp which only had a single day’s worth of oil remaining; but which somehow managed to burn for eight days until new oil could be found. Thus, Hanukah became a purely spiritual holiday focusing on the lights instead of Maccabean glory.

After the founding of the State of Israel, when Zionism came to dominate the thinking of world Jewry, Zionists turned Hanukah back into a holiday which highlighted the Maccabean struggle against tyranny and oppression. Hanukah for them became the prototype of Jewish nationalist struggle against those who would destroy our people. They were, of course, thinking of the Hitler (as Antiochus the tyrant), the Holocaust and the creation of Israel as the modern successors to the Hanukah holiday.

While this Hanukah mythmaking might have been helpful to those who survived a Nazi Holocaust and given them great consolation, it leaves some Jews today uncomfortable with an Israel which is no longer merely a champion of Jewish liberty; but rather an oppressor of Palestinian rights and all in the name of Jewish nationalism. Some of us do not believe that Jewish nationalism in and of itself must deny Palestinian nationalism in order for the State of Israel to survive and thrive.

I’ve often heard people say the only solution to the conflict is force (e.g. “those Arabs only understand force” or “You peaceniks don’t understand that there’s no one on the other side who wants to make peace with you”). At moments like this it is instructive to remember God’s clarion call in Isaiah: “Not by might, not by power; but by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” The original Hebrew states this much more sonorously: לא בכוח ולא בחיל כי אם ברוחי אמר יי צבאות . Note the three words (choach ‘power’ or ‘might’, chayil ‘valor’ or ‘power’ and ruchi ‘my spirit’ or ‘my breath’) in rapid succession with the “ch” sound. This is not the harsh ‘ch’ sound of western languages (especially German). Rather, it is the fluid, propulsive sound of the Middle Eastern ‘ch’ which (unlike in western languages) requires the speaker to exhale a breath as he/she forms the sound. The final word, ruchi is the climactic word in the passage and as such it trumps the earlier words “choach” and “chayil” as if to say that spirit trumps power in Jewish tradition. That breath of air in pronouncing the final ruchi reinforces in sound the deeper meaning of the quotation.

So, let us think of lights burning brightly against the winter cold. Let us remember in this coldest and darkest time of year, that the candles of Hanukah give us hope for brightness and warmth and the return of life in the coming Spring.

For another interesting take on the holiday, I recommend Head Heeb’s Ocho Kandelikas. Jonathan is running one of the more interesting blogs around that encompasses (like mine) a Jewish sensibility.



A Nonsensical Talmudic Holiday

Hannukah is a typical rabbinic charade. It takes the Biblical story of the Maccabees and embroiders it with fantasy. After their victory in 165 B.C., the Jews retook control of the remains of the temple, but it had been defiled. They wanted to rekindle its eternal flame, but they found only one small flask of consecrated oil. According to the Talmud, that small supply, enough for only one day, miraculously lasted for eight, which gave the Jews time to prepare new oil. And which gave the world Hanukkah, meaning "dedication" or "consecration" in Hebrew.

There is no oil that lasted eight days in the Biblical text. This story first appeared in the Talmud, which was concocted by rabbis who lived in Babylon after the destruction of the Temple.

The nonsensical miracle of the oil hoax has led to the rabbinic custom of eating foods fried in oil for Hanukkah. In the United States, the most popular is latkes, (potato pancakes).

The pagan/Babylonian root of Hannukah can be glimpsed in the fact that during Hannukah Talmudic children play a gambling game with a dreidel, a spinning top. Each side has a Hebrew letter. In most places, the letters spell "A Great Miracle Happened There."

In San Francisco for several years a huge Hannukah menorah was displayed in Union Square while the square had no Christian Nativity scene.

Traditionally in Judaism, Hannukah was a very minor observance. The contemporary emphasis on Hannukah was created as a rival to Christmas observances.


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