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Those who think Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas have it almost right: Hanukkah is the holiday of being Jewish amidst the Christmas tide.

Consider Hanukkah's place in the Jewish year: a minor holiday not commanded by the Torah, barely mentioned by the Talmud.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are holidays for the soul. Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot recall the forging of the Jewish people through their journey from Egyptian slavery to Israel and freedom.

Hanukkah, along with Purim, recalls the later story of being Jewish in a non-Jewish world, a world where Judea could not simply close its borders against an increasingly globalized civilization.

Hanukkah and your family

A giving idea

Hanukkah Mad Lib® fun

If the theme of Purim is physical survival despite outside threats, Hanukkah is about the survival of the Jewish spirit – with a healthy dose of physical resistance thrown in for good measure.

How does a community maintain its identity in relation to the broader culture? How much should outside influences be resisted, and how much embraced? How much do we depend upon God to save us and how much upon ourselves? These were the questions that burned in the Jews in the time of the Maccabbees more than 2100 years ago. It was the renewed relevance of these questions which propelled Hanukkah, for centuries a minor festivity, to a central place in the Jewish calendar of the 20th century.

Hanukkah: The History

The basic story of Hanukkah is well known: In the year 167 b.c.e., Antiochus IV, ruler of the third of Alexander’s Greek empire that included Syria and Israel, banned circumcision and Sabbath obervance, and introduced pagan worship into the Temple in Jerusalem. Mattathias, a priest in the small town of Modiin, refused an order to worship a sacrifice, slayed both a Jew who joined in the pagan worship and the king’s agent, and fled to the hills to launch a guerrilla rebellion that was continued after his death by his son, Judah Maccabee.

After two years, the rebels succeeded in reconquering Jerusalem. On the third anniversary of the Temple’s desecration it was rededicated in an eight day celebration.

According to the Talmud it was at this time that a single undefiled flask of olive oil was found for lighting the Temple candelabrum (menorah). Miraculously, the oil, sufficient for only one day, burnt for eight.

The real story

The real history story is much more convoluted.

The Maccabeean revolt wasn’t strictly a revolt against Antiochus: Antiochus' decrees against Jewish practice were imposed at the behest of a group of Jews who wanted to be part of the Greek civilization. These Jews resented that Jewish law was the law of the land, endorsed, until then, by the empire. This clash was less a war of liberation from the Greeks than an actual civil war.

While Judah Maccabee fought against the Jewish high priest Jason, who readily introduced pagan worship to the Temple, he was also at odds with the faithful who preferred to die than to fight on the Sabbath. Having won the victory for Jewish tradition against newfangled Greek civilization, he proceeded to institute a new holiday.

The Maccabee’s mixture of spiritual and military resistance took ironic turns through the remaining generations of Jewish independence.

The generation that followed Judah and Simon bore Greek names.

As rulers, they expanded the borders of the Jewish state – and forcibly converted the peoples they conquered to Judaism.

They also came into conflict with the rabbis who thought political leaders should be descendants of the House of David.

The Maccabees proved as flawed as any other dynasty. Through misuse of power and infighting, and ultimately paved the way for Roman rule and a halt to Jewish independence that lasted 1900 years.

Evolution of Hanukkah

Hanukkah has undergone many transformations between the first Temple Rededication and the Rugrats Hanukkah special.

Originally both a religious and military celebration, the military victory was all-but ignored by the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud, for whom the most important part was the miracle of the Temple’s rededication.

In the Middle Ages, the idea of martyrdom, a real issue for Jews living in Christian persecution, came to the fore, with the stories of Hannah and her seven sons.

With the invention of playing cards and gambling, Hanukkah became a time of lighthearted gaming – as experienced through the dreidel.

A hundred years ago, Hanukkah was drafted to serve two projects for defining Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world.

In Russia, Zionist nationalists retold the story of Hanukkah to emphasize the victories of the Maccabees, as military heroes who made Jewish history by taking up arms and taking Jewish history in their own hands. This version can be heard most explicitly in a Zionist song which secularized a Biblical hymn: "Mi yimalel -- Who can retell the heroic deeds of Israel?"

Having decided to fight to liberate Israel for the first time in centuries, the Zionists gave the Maccabees mythic significance as the original Jewish superheroes, if not faster than a speeding bullet, at least able to uproot 50-foot trees on horseback.

In America, Henrietta Szold and others fighting to revitalize American Judaism seized upon Hanukkah – with its congruence to the increasingly important American Christmas holiday – to symbolize the American ideal of religious freedom and the Jewish necessity of minority religious pluralism.

The bottom line

So what does Hanukkah mean to us?

Really, the question is, what does Hanukkah mean to you -- and what do you want to teach your children?

Hanukkah can be

  • a celebration of God’s salvation
  • a celebration of protecting Jewish uniqueness
  • a celebration of Jews fighting for themselves and their religion
  • a celebration of our difference
  • a celebration of Jewish power
  • a time for giving gifts
  • a season of light in the darkest time of the year



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