Is Hannukka the Jewish “Christmas”?

The Hebrew word ‘Hanukkah’ literally means ‘dedication’ and its story takes us back to the events of the 2nd century BCE as described in the deuterocanonical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. The eight-day festival begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which normally falls somewhere in December in the Gregorian calendar.

The background to the major events celebrated at Hanukkah is as follows:  with the conquests of Alexander the Great, Judea became part of the Macedonian Empire. After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, his kingdom was divided into three parts, and Judea ultimately fell under the rule of the Syrian Greeks (Seleucids). The Seleucid Empire was a major centre of Hellenistic culture and customs, and while for a long time there was no religious coercion; many Jews, particularly the aristocracy, began to assimilate, adopting the ways of the stranger and giving up Jewish practices. King Antiochus IV Epiphanes eventually went as far as outlawing Judaism altogether, and forcing people to worship the Greek gods. In 168 BCE his soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, desecrating the Temple and setting up a pagan altar at the altar of the burnt offerings, and sacrificing pigs there.

While many Jews did abandon their religion, others refused to comply, and a great Jewish rebellion broke out in reaction to Antiochus’ actions led by the priest Matityahu and his sons. Relying largely on what we today would call guerrilla warfare tactics, within two years the rebels succeeded in ridding Jerusalem of the Seleucids and therefore regaining control of the Temple. In 165 BCE the sanctuary was purified, the polluted altar torn down and a new one rebuilt in its place; new holy vessels were ordered to be made. When everything was ready, as we are told in the books of Maccabees, the rededication of the altar (Hebrew ‘Hanukkat haMizbeah’) was celebrated for eight days – similar to the festival of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, which also lasted eight days and which the Jews had not been able to celebrate properly without access to their Temple. The lighting of torches and flames formed significant part of the latter festival. Thus Hanukkahwas instituted for the coming generations, and the notion of kindling lights remained central to the celebration – so much so that the historian Josephus refers to Hanukkah in his “Antiquities” by the Greek word ‘phota’, simply meaning ‘lights’.

If you got so far in reading this and feel that something is missing from the story – namely, some miraculous supernatural element – you’re absolutely right. Apart from the historically significant military victory, another “miracle” is celebrated on Hanukkah. The funny thing is that this other, more spiritual miracle is not mentioned anywhere outside rabbinic sources. Rabbinic literature tells us that when the Hasmonean rebels prevailed over the Greeks and regained control of Jerusalem, upon entering the Temple they found only one cruse of unpolluted oil still sealed with the seal of the High Priest. This one cruse was meant to last only one night, but a miracle occurred and it lasted eight nights – which was how long it took for the Jews to make more oil. From then on, the Rabbis tell us, the festival of Hanukkah was established in that time of the year to commemorate the miraculous event.

If you ask a Jewish child today to tell you about the meaning of Hanukkah, they would most likely speak about the miracle of the oil rather than the military victory. Indeed, by recounting the story of the oil miracle not mentioned in any other sources, the Rabbis shifted the focus of the holiday from national-political to the spiritual – though the prayers recited on Hanukkah preserve a bit of both. Hallel (‘Praise’) is made up of Psalms and is a prayer of thanksgiving and hopes for national redemption. Al haNissim (‘for the miracles’) is a special addition to the main daily prayer, thanking God for the miracle of the victory over the Greeks without mentioning the miracle of the oil – but emphasising the spiritual, rather than military triumph resulting from the fact that Judaism managed to prevail.

The main mitzvah, or commandment, binding on Jews on Hanukkah is – you guessed it – the kindling of the Hanukkah lights. While the rabbis tell us that one light kindled per household would suffice for the fulfilment of this commandment, in most households an individual hanukkiah (a special Hanukkah candelabra) is lit by each family member – starting with one light on the first night, and going up in number every successive night, kindling eight on the final, eighth night of Hanukkah. Since the original miracle happened with oil, the use of oil is preferred, but candles are also acceptable. The hanukkiah is normally placed on the windowsill, from where it can be seen by the passers-by in the streets – this is because Jews are commanded to publicise the Hanukkah miracle. In Talmudic times the hanukkiah was required to be placed outside one’s front door – only in times of danger did the Rabbis permit the lamp to be kept inside. This happened, for instance, in Persia, where Jews lived among fire-worshippers.

Working is permitted during Hanukkah, which makes it one of the most flexible Jewish festivals. To commemorate the oil miracle, it is nowadays customary to eat foods fried in oil – many Ashkenazi (Eastern European in origin) Jews eat latkes, or potato pancakes. In Israel it is sufganiyot, or doughnuts, which fill the shop, café, and confectionary windows around the time of Hanukkah. While a minor festival in religious terms, the holiday’s seasonal overlap with Christmas means that in Western countries it has become increasingly commercialised, especially but not exclusively by Reformed Jews, many of whom give their children a small present on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.

If one has the opportunity to visit a Jewish neighbourhood in Israel or elsewhere during the time of Hanukkah, one should definitely do so, for the sight of a hanukkiah in every window or outside every door can hardly leave one unmoved. This time of the year carries with it an aura of light, joy, miracles, national unity, spiritual victory, and reassurance of the ultimate triumph of light over darkness
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