This upcoming week, we celebrate the festival of Hanukkah. We will light candles, eat jelly doughnuts, play some games and celebrate. Hanukkah is one of those fun holidays and many Jews, even those unaffiliated with a synagogue, will at least acknowledge.
During the Second Temple period, the Seleucids, who were Greeks had ruled over Judea for about 100 years. They imposed their pagan culture on the Jews, including sacrificing pigs on the altar, and prohibiting observing Shabbat and circumcision. This ultimately led to a revolt by the Hasmonean (who were also known as Maccabees or hammers since they delivered blows to the enemies), a dynasty of priests, and Judah, son of Mattathias, the chief priest.
“Hanukkah” means “dedication”. After 20 years of fighting, in 142 BCE, the Maccabees drove out the Seleucids. The Temple had affected by the fighting and was in need of repair. During this rededication, they went to light the menorah but only had enough oil to last for one day. We all know that miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah, and thus the new Hanukkiah or eight-branched Hanukkah menorah. Some say that Hanukkah commemorates the winning of a crucial battle that allowed our people to survive and evolve into the system it is today, others honor the miracle of the oil. In practice today, we do both.
Hanukkah is probably the best-known holiday among non-Jews. Unfortunately, many think that it is our main holiday and really the Jewish Christmas since we give gifts as well. The giving of gifts was influenced by the widespread Christian practice of giving gifts, even by secular Christians, agnostics and atheists. And it is because it occurs around the same time as Christmas that people incorrectly assign importance to it.
In fact, Hanukkah is, as we know, a minor festival, partly because it does indeed commemorate a battle and Jews don’t worship violence, the religious significance is minimal and it’s not based in Torah. We do, however, insert some special prayers into our daily liturgy to honor the miracle of the oil. We also eat jelly donuts and blintzes, also because of the oily nature of food.
Some believe that both Hanukkah and Christmas, and Kwanzaa to some extent, are actually excuses to continue a pagan celebration that ultimately recognizes the lengthening of the days after the waning of the sun. This idea of Festival of Lights is widespread and celebrated differently by different cultures. Of course, we Jews would never acknowledge this, true or not.
Most of the Jewish holidays occur in their own time outside of other religions. Since Christianity is based on Judaism, there is some other overlap. Passover, a major holiday, occurs about the same time as Easter and Purim, a minor holiday, occurs around the same time as St. Patrick’s Day.
At the time of this writing, with the first candle lighting about a week away, there was barely any mention in media or social media. Contrast this with the attention that is paid to the coming of Christmas. Media is rife with references, especially the giving of gifts. In fact, Black Friday is so named because with the excessive shopping, this is typically when retailers go into the “black” with their profits. Also abounding are the TV specials, live stage performances and music playing on certain radio stations.
All of which can make this time somewhat trying for certain people of the Jewish persuasion, such as, yes, myself. Seeing all of the references and people just saying, “Merry Christmas”, can be very uncomfortable. Time was, and some of this still occurs, schools would put on Christmas pageants with Christmas music mixed in with Winter music; sometimes a Catholic priest and/or Protestant minister would be present as well.
Some in our country have felt that such emphasis made non-Christians uncomfortable and was not in line with the First Amendment that technically separated Church and State, and lightened greetings the more secular “Happy Holidays”. Some feel that this is a violation of their freedom of expression of religion and have complained that such restrictions hamper their expression.
Finally, it can be difficult being Jewish to not get caught up in this foreign secular observance of an ultimately religious holiday, and succumb to the entreaties of stout, white-bearded men dressed in red handing out candy. Jewish kids don’t want to be left out. If you are in a family of mixed observances, you will no doubt be exposed to the practices anyway.
What’s a Jew to do? Obviously, come to the local community candle lightings and follow suit in your own home. Attend the celebration in your local synagogue.
Most importantly, be involved throughout the year observing the major holidays and attending synagogue for at least those times. This will help reinforce your Jewish identity and alleviate any discomfort.
Nothing wrong with getting into the holiday spirit. After all, peace on Earth and good will to our neighbors are very Jewish concepts. But at least we’ll all be able to put it all into perspective.