There seems to be a lot of confusion about Hanukah – to the point where it appears to be deliberate.
Let’s begin with what it’s not about.
1. It’s not a Jewish Christmas
In many circles, Hanukah seems to have become an imitation Christmas – a holiday of food, lights, decorations, and gifts. This is a sad considering that although both holidays fall in December, Hanukah has nothing to do with Christmas and perhaps even more ironically, without Hanukah, Christmas would not exist at all.
All Jewish holidays feature food, but the food is only a symbol, a reminder of the miracle of the holiday.
Hanukah is a holiday of lights but that too is a symbol, to help us remember and proclaim the miracle of the holiday.
Gift giving on Hanukah is not a Jewish tradition at all, only a habit adopted by Jews living near Christians so that their children would not become jealous of the gifts Christians receive on their holiday. Giving children Hanukah “gelt”(=money) is a Jewish tradition. There are different explanations for this. The Rambam discusses the need to incentivize children to do what will be expected of them as a grown-up thus it is appropriate to provide children an example of giving in order to teach them to give to those who have less. Additionally, as the Greek oppressors took Jewish property, giving children money is a symbolic way to celebrate that we have the freedom to choose what to do with what is ours (with the emphasis on using money to support spiritual causes rather than selfish gain). Another explanation is that as even the poorest Jew is supposed to have candles to light for the holiday, in order to prevent shame from children begging for their families, it became a tradition to give money to all the children in the community. Whatever explanation is the correct one (and possibly all are correct to some extent), the goal of Hanukah gelt is the antithesis of the Hellenistic desire towards personal enrichment, but rather being enriched spiritually by using money well.
2. Which miracle?
On Hanukah, children play with dreidels marked with letters designed to remind them of the miracle of the holiday. This teaching tool differs depending on location. In the diaspora, the dreidels are marked with four letters that say: “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel the last letter is different, signifying that: “A great miracle happened HERE.”
As an American child, I didn’t really comprehend the significance. I knew the word “miracle” from storybooks. I knew that “there” meant Israel, a place I had visited as a child. But “there” was far away and had very little to do with my American life.
Without a concrete explanation of what we were commemorating the symbols of the holiday loomed larger than the message, they are designed to convey. This opens the door to many unfortunate misunderstandings.
On the Jewish educational site Judaism 101 it says about Hanukah: Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.
Of course, the miracle of the oil is center to Hanukah but that could not have occurred without the military victory. War isn’t something to be glorified – it’s ugly, painful and results in grief and anguish but from there to the idea that Hanukah doesn’t celebrate the military victory is a huge leap.
From Josephus, we learn that the first years following the victory of the Maccabees there were Hanukah celebrations that did not includ Hanukah lights. The celebration was of victory – of the small band of warriors against the powerful Greek army, of the small stubborn tribe who clung to their traditions and religion and did not succumb to the compelling allure of the predominate Hellenistic culture.
The Hanukah miracle is the miracle of warriors of the body and spirit who refused to give up their identity and, in their stubbornness, won. THAT is glorious!
The miracle of light, the oil that burned for eight days when it only should have sufficed for a single day is a symbol for the miracle of retaining identity against all odds – a physical manifestation of the victory of body and faith over the powers of assimilation.
When the light of our People should have died out, through faith and hard work, determination and willingness to suffer for a greater good, it did not. The light is important because it is a testament to Jewish faith and that, in return, God grants us miracles. Light without faith would not exist. Light without the military victory would only be a dramatic folk story, easily dismissed and quickly forgotten.
It is the combination of light and victory that makes the miraculous story of Hanukah complete.
3. Without God, there is no victory
Matitiyahu, father of the Maccabees, was a Cohen, a priest in the Temple. He was also a warrior, as were his sons.
In an attempt to erase Jewish culture and ensure the dominance of the Greek culture, Antiochus erected a statue to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem and demanded the sacrifice of pigs on the altar. It was Matitiyahu, the priest, who set the standard of unwavering Jewish faith. When the Seleucid Greek government demanded the sacrifice to the Greek gods, Matitiyahu not only refused to do so but slew with his own hand the Jew who had stepped forward to do so. He then killed the government official that required the act. It was his sons who led the revolt against the oppressing government and, against all odds – regained Jewish sovereignty and religious freedom.
Faith is not a sentiment that can remain in the realm of theory, it calls for action. Similarly, victory does not occur due to the actions of man, alone.
In the Torah, before battle, the priest is supposed to tell the Nation (Deuteronomy – Chapter 20):
|“Hear, O Israel, today you are approaching the battle against your enemies. Let your hearts not be faint; you shall not be afraid, and you shall not be alarmed, and you shall not be terrified because of them.||
ג וְאָמַ֤ר אֲלֵהֶם֙ שְׁמַ֣ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אַתֶּ֨ם קְרֵבִ֥ים הַיּ֛וֹם לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֵיכֶ֑ם אַל־יֵרַ֣ךְ לְבַבְכֶ֗ם אַל־תִּֽירְא֧וּ וְאַל־תַּחְפְּז֛וּ וְאַל־תַּֽעַרְצ֖וּ מִפְּנֵיהֶֽם
|For the Lord, your God, is the One Who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.||
ד כִּ֚י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם הַֽהֹלֵ֖ךְ עִמָּכֶ֑ם לְהִלָּחֵ֥ם לָכֶ֛ם עִם־אֹֽיְבֵיכֶ֖ם לְהוֹשִׁ֥יעַ אֶתְכֶֽם
Jewish faith says that God walks with us into battle, to fight for us and save us. This is not a figurative description but a very literal one. The Maccabees must have heard this prayer before battle as do IDF soldiers today. This clip is from the time of Operation Cast Lead (Gaza Dec 27, 2008 – Jan 18, 2009) with the IDF Chief Rabbi Rontzki talking to soldiers and reciting the prayer before battle.
The Hanukah song, Maoz Tzur, acknowledges this truth as it appears over and over throughout Jewish history. In the time of the Maccabees, the exile to Babylon, from Haman’s attempt at genocide and slavery under Pharaoh – each time the Jewish people were in danger of being wiped out, physically or through cultural extermination (assimilation) and each time, in different ways, God saved us from our enemies.
Without God, there is no victory. Miracles are not a thing of religious fantasy, they are a tangible experience, the deciding factor between life and death, a nation victorious or a nation lost.
4. Holiday, not a holy day
Part of the confusion surrounding Hanukah is that it is a holiday but not a holy day. The story of Hanukah is that of an event in Jewish history and is not part of the Torah. The ritualistic elements of Hanukah center around the Hanukah lights, how they are lit, what prayers are said, not working during the time they are burning and not doing actions connected with mourning.
Hanukah is a celebration of Jewish nationalism (which does not exist without God) and not a holiday of religious holiness although there are some prayers that are specifically associated with Hanukah. It similar to celebrating Israel’s Independence Day which also commemorates the victory of a tiny group of stubborn Jews fighting for sovereignty and freedom, against an enemy much more powerful and well equipped and – by the grace of God – WINNING.
5. The fight for Judea
King Arthur and Camelot are part of a glorious but fictitious story about a King creating a better, kinder reality for England. In contrast, the Maccabees were real people who fought for Jewish freedom and the sanctity of the Temple on the Temple Mount in the heart of Jerusalem.
The Maccabees lived and died in the land which gave the Jewish People our name – Judea.
Today the Jewish fight for Judea continues, it is only the methodology and field of battle that have changed. It is no longer a conquering army but a battle fought with terminology designed to create a new reality, attempting to influence public perception in order to affect political policy. International organizations, companies like Airbnb, the BDS movement and individual Jew-haters call Judea the “West Bank”, a term that is not geographical but political in nature (it would be similar to calling Texas, “North Mexico”) – designed to associate that area of land with Jordan, disconnecting Judea from Zion, as if Zion would exist without Judea.
Modern day fiction cannot change Jewish history however, it can change Jewish future. Forgetting our roots enables the fictitious to root itself and become “alternative facts” which are already being used to wipe us off the map – literally.
Jews are from Judea. (And Arabs are from Arabia). It really is that simple.
6. Two front war
The Maccabees fought a battle on two fronts:
- The physical battle against the army of Antiochus who tried, by force, to eliminate Jewish identity – occupying the land, refusing its occupants the right to live and worship as Jews, defiling the Temple in the heart of Jerusalem.
- The spiritual battle against assimilation, necessitating confrontation even with other Jews who found Hellenistic culture alluring and were willing to give up Judaism, to assimilate with the Greeks, forgetting Jewish uniqueness for the ease of becoming like everyone else.
What difference is there between the battle of the Maccabees and the fight of Jews today, particularly Israeli Jews? Today, as in the time of the Maccabees, it seems it would take a miracle to retain Jewish identity and freedom in the face of the modern forces hell-bent on eliminating the Jewish State and Jewish willingness to assimilate in the hope of becoming “like everyone else.”
In a time when many view nationalism, borders, and uniqueness to be evils that must be expunged from the world, it is convenient to forget what Hanukah is all about. It is less threatening when Hanukah becomes a trivial imitation of Christmas, a holiday of lights and doughnuts.
Over the centuries fear has led Jews to put their heads down and weather the storm of whatever discrimination or violence was directed at the community: “We survived Pharaoh, this too shall pass.” Living under oppression led Jews to turn within, to focus on spirituality, rituals, and theories. Destruction of the Temple, exile, and separation from the land which gave us our name led Jews to set aside the physicality of Jews life.
We forgot that we come from a nation of warriors.
The re-establishment of the Jewish State led Jews around the world to once again raise their heads in pride. In theory, this was pride in prophecy actualized. In actuality, this was pride in Jewish identity once again becoming complete. The spiritual Jew, reconnected with the physical Jew. The warrior once again, free in the land from which our people sprang.
This, of course, revived an even greater wave of Jew-hate and subsequent Jewish fear. It is easy for the world to accept the meek Jew, to go through the motions of sympathy for the dead Jew. Strong Jews who can reach their arm across the globe to pluck Jews out of the hands of their enemies are a completely different story. Warrior Jews who refuse to give up, refuse to die and refuse to become like everyone else are a threat to a world that demands that all nations relinquish identity, uniqueness, and borders.
Frightened Jews, still believe that returning to meekness will appease the haters. If only the Jewish State was less Jewish maybe the hate would die down. If only individual Jews would set aside their Jewish identity, they could become like everyone else and no longer be hated… Fear makes people irrational and unable to learn from the past.
Hanukah is the story of Jewish nationalism. An indigenous people, fighting for their ancestral homeland and tribal rights AND WINNING.
This is the same Jewish nationalism that was objected to when the Jewish State was declared in 1948. The same nationalism that was recently defined by the Nation-State law, defining that the Jewish People are the only People who have the right to self-determination as a nation within the State of Israel. All citizens have the right to individual self-determination but only the Jewish Nation has the right to the Jewish State.
No wonder Hanukah is being minimized and trivialized. Nothing is scarier than a Maccabee.