“What is Hanukkah?” These are the words that open the discussion on Hanukkah in the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism.
“What is Hanukkah?” These are the words that open the discussion on Hanukkah in the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism. What began as a story of a battle for religious freedom around 169 BCE has since been layered with elements of faith, resilience, and miracles.
The Hebrew word, “Hanukkah,” which translates to “rededication,” refers to the Temple in Jerusalem. This rededication was necessary after the Temple had been desecrated by the Assyrian Greeks during the rule of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire.
That king did not permit the Jews of Judea to freely practice their religion, so a small group of Jews from Modi’in, headed by Judah Maccabee, led a revolt. This revolt lasted several years, and somehow this small group of Jews were able to not only reclaim their Temple, but also their freedom.
But before they could move back in and reinstate Jewish practice and ritual inside the Temple, they first needed to sanctify and rededicate the space. While the ability to win this battle may have been the first miracle of the holiday, the second is often connected with the menorah, or lamp, inside the Temple.
Inside the Temple were many fixtures and symbols. One of these items was a menorah, or candelabra, which needed to be lit at all times – a symbol that had to be tended. As the story goes, when the Jews of Judea went to light their menorah, all they could find was a tiny cruse of oil. But not only did this light remain aglow for one night, it actually remained lit for eight whole nights. This miracle provided them with enough time to produce new oil, so that they could fully reinstate all of their rites and traditions.
Today, Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and nights to remember this miracle of the oil. Jewish holidays begin at sundown, so on the evening of Dec. 18, we will light the first light. Each night, we will add one more candle to our hanukkiyah, or Hanukkah candelabra. And each night we do so, we recite blessings acknowledging the commandment to kindle these lights, and also to thank God for the “miracles performed for our ancestors at this season.”
It’s a joyful holiday, and families may also sing songs, play dreidel (a spinning top) and give gifts. It is also customary to eat food fried in oil, a reminder of that miraculous small cruse of oil in the Temple. This is usually done by preparing latkes (potato pancakes fried in oil) and sufganiyot (traditionally, a jelly filled donut – though contemporary chefs have gotten quite creative with the various donut recipes and fillings.)
In truth, Hanukkah is a minor holiday. It is not mentioned in the Torah, rather it remembers a post-biblical story that our rabbinic sages helped institute as a holiday. But as we march toward the winter solstice, when each day is a little darker than the one that came before, it is no wonder that Hanukkah has taken on such prominence for contemporary Jews.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Hanukkah became the Jewish answer to wanting to celebrate a holiday when so many friends and neighbors are celebrating Christmas, but even more than that we often refer to Hanukkah as the “Festival of Lights.” At the darkest time of year, Hanukkah provides us with an opportunity to not only pray for light, but to actually be a part of creating this light ourselves.
We are taught that as each household lights their Hanukkah menorah, they should pirsum hanes, or publicize this miracle. This means that we should place our menorot (plural for menorah) in our windows, doorways, and anywhere that will help share this light with the world. God willing, we all live in spaces and places in which it is safe to proudly share our religions and traditions, so that we may all shine our unique lights.
For those of us who might be hanging Christmas lights, kindling the lights of Kwanzaa or Diwali, or lighting a Hanukkah menorah, may it be that these lights are not just a way to illuminate our space. Let it be that these lights are also a reminder for all of us to notice how we can bring more light and peace into this world each and every day. Wishing all who celebrate a very happy holiday, and may we all be blessed with a happy, healthy, and peaceful 2023.
Rabbi Roni Handler
Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun