Chanukah: The Festival of Lights by Nechama Reisel
Chanukah: The Festival of Lights by Nechama Reisel

Volume 1 , Issue 2

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 II and the Book of Judith found in the Apocrypha, and a later source, the Scroll of Antiochus.

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.

Rituals Forbidden

In 168 B.C.E., Antiochus despoiled the Temple of its gold and silver vessels. He then issued a series of decrees which ultimately lit the torches of rebellion among the faithful, pious adherents to Judaism. Antiochus ordered that sacrificial services in the Temple cease: that temples for pagan worship be erected; and that the Holy Temple be converted into a pagan temple. A statue of Zeus Olympus was erected inside the Temple and hogs were sacrificed on the altars. Observances basic to our faith were expressly forbidden. The chief amongst them being: Sabbath observance, Writ Milah, and the hallowing of the New Moon. By not permitting the latter, the observance of all time-related festivals like Rosh Hashanah and Passover, whose dates were set by the Sanhedrin (the governing, rabbinical council) according to the appearance of the new moon, was effectively destroyed. Antiochus also ordered the confiscation and burning of all copies of the Torah; its study or possession were each punishable by death.

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

Since the Temple's Menorah was gone, the Kohanim manufactured a makeshift one of seven iron spits covered with wood. All the oil, however, was found to be contaminated and unfit for use. A further search, however, turned up a small, sealed vial of oil, enough for only one night's burning. The unbroken seal on the vial was that of the Kohen Gadol. This was all the more remarkable because it had never been required that the flasks be sealed, much less by the Kohen Gadol. Then another miracle occurred. While the quantity of oil was sufficient for only one night's burning, it actually lasted for eight days, by which time the Kohanim were able to prepare and bring fresh, uncontaminated oil to the Temple. The next day, the 25th of Kislev, exactly three years after the defilement of the Temple, the Kohanim offered the daily burnt offering, and with that rededicated the Temple. Yehudah, together with the Sanhedrin (the supreme council), decreed that the festival of Chanukah (which means ?dedication?) be celebrated every year for eight days, beginning with the 25th of Kislev.

Yehudah and 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 unable to observe at the proper time. This accounts for several similarities between the two holidays: The eight-day observance, the recitation of the complete ?Hallel?, and the rejoicing and festivity.

Victory of Few Over Many

The Maccabees had won a great victory: the right of a minority to be different from the majority amongst whom they lived, and to practice their religion as they saw fit. It was not, however, until the 18th of Elul. 3621/140 B.C.E., that the final military victory, under the leadership of Matityahu's only surviving son, Shimon, occurred, and Israel became a free nation. This was the final victory of ?the few over the 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 Jews under even dangerous circumstances. Even men and women in view of the ovens in the concentration camps lit makeshift candles and said the benedictions. The story and its heroes and heroines is the subject of plays, stories, poetry. art, and music. Handel's ?Judas Maccabeus? is, perhaps, the best known major musical work.

Chanukah Customs

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 . She then ordered the people of Jerusalem to hang Holofernes head from the battlements. When the Syrian troops saw this the next morning, they fled in panic, and Jerusalem was saved. The eighth day of Chanukah, known as ?Zot Chanukah? (?This is the dedication?), from the closing portion of the Torah read that day, is, in some communities, dedicated to Judith.

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,? ?gimmel,? ?hae,? and ?shin,? representing the sentence, ?Nes gadol hayah sham. (?A great miracle happened there.?) In Israel the ?shin? is replaced with a ?pe? for ?poh? meaning ?here.?

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 Israel, where Christmas is observed by Christians, who emphasize its religious significance without commercialization. Chanukah, in Israel, is a national, public festival marked by observances commemorating the military and religious victories. On the first day, a torch relay race is run from Modi'in to Jerusalem, where the president of the State of Israel receives the torch, thereby initiating the observance of the festival.

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.

Chag Sameach.

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