Chanukah: The Festival of Lights by Nechama Reisel
Volume 1 , Issue 2 (Dec., 1987 | Kislev, 5748)
Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Shmini Atzeret, Pesach, and Shavuot--the major holidays in the Jewish calendar--are mandated in the Torah. Their dates and the nature of their observance are detailed unequivocally in the Five Books of Moses. Chanukah, the festival which occurs sixty-one days after Simchat Torah, on the 25th of Kislev, is of post-Biblical origin, and, along with Purim and Tisha B'Av, is mandated by our Sages.
Chanukah Commemorates Challenge to Faith
Throughout our history, we have been challenged and persecuted by other cultures because of our adherence to and defense of our beliefs and practices, which grew out of our covenant with God. Chanukah commemorates one such major challenge, a corrupted form of Hellenism that manifested itself during the time of the Syrian occupation of Judea, the time of the Second Temple.
Ironically, our knowledge of the
events of the period comes to us not from original Hebrew sources of the
period, but rather from later translations into Greek. and still other, later
sources. Chief among these are MaccabeesI and
Hellenism and Enlightenment: The Seeds of Revolt
Hellenism, with its emphasis on rationalism and aestheticism in every form can be understood as a direct contrast with the Hebraic vision of life, a vision which emphasized mysticism, conformity to Divine laws, and restraint of natural impulses. To the Jews who had returned from the Babylonian exile, where many had intermarried and partially assimilated, Hellenism had a powerful appeal. It is this segment of the population that became the nucleus for the spread of Hellenism among the Jews in Judea and, particularly, in Jerusalem. It was they, and not their less sophisticated, less ?enlightened? brethren who adopted the more corrupt practices of Hellenism which had been brought to the region by Alexander I and which rapidly became even more corrupt after Alexander's death. By the time of the rule of Antiochus IV (Antiochus Epiphanes), Hellenism had become synonymous with hedonism. Antiochus introduced further corruptions and barbarisms. Concomitant with the struggles for the throne that took place after Alexander's death were intrigues and struggles for power among the Jewish high priests in Jerusalem. These high priests had not been born to the priesthood and were therefore not legitimately entitled to the office. Indeed they were practicing Hellenists who wooed and bribed the secular leaders to obtain their office. They even erected a gymnasium near the Holy Temple. This gymnasium became a center of paganism and licentiousness where even the Kohanim (priests) were found to participate in the lewd pagan rites. Judaism was thus threatened spiritually from within as well as being threatened physically from its non- Jewish enemies. In subsequent years, these Hellenized ?priests? even murdered the legitimate Kohen Gadol and persecuted their fellow Jews. The time was ripe for a religious rebellion.
B.C.E., Antiochus despoiled the
The orders were diligently obeyed by a group of Hellenistic Jews who, on the 25th of Kislev, 168 B.C.E., offered sacrifices of hogs on a pagan altar in the Holy Temple. Other Jews, however, chose death rather than to ?desecrate the Name.? Women circumcised their infants, and then were put to death with the infant hung around the mother's neck. Their families were also murdered. Entire families were tortured and burned alive or murdered in other horrifying ways. These staunch adherents to their faith served as inspiration to a small group of rebels, led by Matityahu (Mattathias), the Hasmonean, son of the true Kohen Gadol, Yochanon. Matityahu together with his five sons had fled from Jerusalem to live in the caves near the town of Modi'in and together with about six thousand other faithful adherents to Judaism they engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Syrians.
Yehudah Ha Maccabee Leads the Fight
Matityahu was an old man, and as his death neared he urged his sons to continue the struggle and appointed Yehudah their leader. Yehudah (Judah) became known as the Maccabee (meaning hammer), possibly because of his great strength and height or because of the shape of his skull. He proved to be a fearless leader and master strategist. Against tremendous odds his small, untrained, poorly armed band of guerrillas faced a large, disciplined trained and well-armed group of Syrian soldiers, at the Battle of Emmaus, during the month of Kislev, 165, B.C.E., Yehudah and his men routed the Syrians, marched to the Temple Mount, and proceeded to cleanse and purify the Temple.
The Miracle of Chanukah
his friends also looked for and found hidden copies of the Torah and the
Prophets, which had been surreptitiously studied all this time. They collected
and brought these sacred books to Jerusalem. In addition, according to the Book of Maccabees
II, after the
Maccabees had cleansed the Temple, they
celebrated the festival of Sukkot,
which they had been
Victory of Few Over Many
The essential story
of faith and triumph over tyranny has captured the imagination of
people, Jewish and non-Jewish, throughout the ages. It has given hope and
courage to those who were threatened with annihilation, and was celebrated by
Customs pertaining to the observance of the festival vary from one part of the world to another. and even among different segments of the Jewish population within a given community. They have also changed over the centuries. Central to the observance, however, are the laws governing the religious rituals. Mandatory is the kindling, in the home, of oil lights or candles with wicks each night of the festival beginning with the evening of the 25th of Kislev (this year. the evening of December 15). Also required is the publicizing of the event, which may be fulfilled by placing and lighting the menorah in a doorway or window facing the street. (In Israel, there are menorahs outside all public buildings.) The lights are also kindled in the synagogue. The entire ?Haller is said every day, and ?Al Hanissim? and ?Bimeh Mati?tyahu,? a brief account of the origin of the festival, are inserted in the prayer service (during the ?Sh'moneh Esreh?) and in the Grace after Meals. Fasting and eulogies are forbidden during the entire festival.
Women's Role in Chanukah
Women as well as men are obligated to perform the rituals of Chanukah. This is, in part, because of the roles the women played in the miraculous events of this period. Several stories about the suffering, valor, and piety of women have been handed down by tradition. First is the story of the suffering and humiliation women endured when the Syrians decreed that all Jewish brides, before they were married, had first to submit themselves to the Syrian prince. As a result, Jewish people refused to marry, or did so only in secret.
According to the Megillat Taanit, when the wedding date of the daughter of Matityahu ben Yochanan (the leader of the Maccabean revolt) arrived and she was to be brought to the prince, her brothers fought the Syrian officials and troops and defeated them.
Tied to this story is the story of Judith. It is narrated
in the Apocrypha, and also in the Midrash for Chanukah. According to these sources, when the
Syrian king heard about the execution of his officials, he ordered his entire
army, under the captaincy of Holofernes, to attack
Jerusalem, The besieged, hungry inhabitants of the city despaired and wanted to
surrender. A beautiful, pious widow named Judith, however, volunteered to go to
Holofernes and rescue Jerusalem. Her beauty so
impressed the captain's officials that she was able to gain an audience with
him, whereupon she proceeded to seduce him. According to legend, she fed him
cheese which made him so thirsty that he drank so much wine that he fell into a
drunken stupor. Yehudit (Judith) then seized his
sword and decapitated him .
The second story connecting women to the miracle is that of the pious women who circumcised their newborn infants and then perished with them.
Hannah and Her Seven Sons
Finally there is the story of the pious Hannah and her seven sons. She witnessed the horrible torture and murder of each of her sons successively, and encouraged them to die for their faith rather than eat pig's meat and reject the teachings of the Torah. After the death of her youngest, a mere child of seven, she herself perished.
Chanukah has become particularly associated with women because of the devotion to their faith of these heroines. And because of this, women are exempt from heavy work during the entire eight days. At the very least, it is the custom that women do no work while the candles are lit.
Chanukah Does Not Equal Christmas
After the candles have been lit, the required benedictions pronounced, and songs sung, it is customary for parents to give their children small token gifts of bright coins (Chanukah gelt) and inexpensive gifts and books and toys associated with the festival. Because the festival is so closely connected to the rededication to and study of Torah, these gifts are considered rewards for the children's diligence in studying the Torah and to encourage them to continue their studies. (The lavish, expensive gifts associated with the Christmas season are, obviously, inappropriate, and really a custom only in this country.) Children, too, give small, personal gifts to their parents.
It is also customary to give gifts to Torah teachers, and to distribute contributions to Yeshivot, charitable institutions, and the needy. During medieval times, this was also a time when the father of a betrothed girl exchanged gifts with her bridegroom-to-be.
Dreidel and Other Customs
During the eight days, and especially each evening,
children and adults play a number of festival-related games. Chief among these
is ?spin the dreidel.? The dreidel
is a spinning top on which are engraved or imprinted the Hebrew letters ?nun,?
Although gambling is generally frowned upon in traditional Jewish circles, playing dreidel is encouraged because of its association with Torah study. According to legend, whenever Jews were forbidden to study the Torah, as they were during the time of Antiochus, groups of men or children would gather to study, camouflaging this activity by playing games of chance, such as the dreidel game.
Festive meals, while not mandatory, are customary during Chanukah. At these, it is customary to serve dairy dishes (in memory of Judith's deed) and foods made with or fried in oil.
Among Ashkenazic Jews, potato or other pancakes are popular, while Sephardim serve a type of fried doughnut. Recipes for these and other popular dishes, aswell as instructions for playing popular games can be found in The Hanukkah Anthology a valuable reference on the holiday by Phillip Goodman.
The Hanukkah Anthology contains a number of interesting essays pertaining to the observance of the festival in other countries as well as essays dealing with a problem that seems to be unique to the United States; namely, the confusion of Chanukah with the observances of Christmas.
Such confusion does not exist in
For a more detailed account of the history of the festival, its observances, the laws related to the observance, stories, poetry, legends, recipes, music, and narratives about how the festival has served as an inspiration to oppressed Jews throughout the ages, the following sources are recommended: Chanukah--Its History, Observance, and Significance, The Artscroll Mesorah Series, 1981; The Book of Our Heritage, Feldheim Publishers, 1973.