Here it is again, that time of year when many of my well-meaning Christian friends will ask, “Hanukkah, isn’t that like the Jewish Christmas?”
Now, I know these friends are only expressing an interest in my faith and a concern about things that are important to me, but how can I politely tell them that there is almost no similarity between Hanukkah and Christmas other than occurring at about the same time of year. In reality, the one major similarity the holidays do share would not be considered a good thing by many people. Christmas is the birthday of the central figure of the Christian faith and object of their worship. One might say that without Christmas there would be no Christianity. Judaism has no such central figure.
Hanukkah, by comparison, is a relatively minor religious celebration commemorating the cleansing or rededication of a holy place. It was, for centuries celebrated very simply by just the lighting of candles and saying of prayers. In fact, most people are not aware that Hanukkah is not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It does not rank among the major observances like the Sabbath, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, each of which is commanded several times in the Torah itself. Hanukkah’s first mention in Jewish sources is in the books of First and Second Maccabees. These two books were not included in the Hebrew canon of scripture, but are assigned to a collection of writings known as the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha.
To understand the meaning of Hanukkah, we need to understand and appreciate the importance of God’s promise that a particular parcel of real estate would become the permanent possession of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. Through time that particular piece of land, located in the Middle East, became more and more integrated into the faith and beliefs of Abraham’s descendants. Once Israelite control of Jerusalem was consolidated under kings David and Solomon, a particular mountain in the city became the focal point of Jewish prayer and worship. Solomon built the first Temple there. That Temple was later destroyed by the Babylonians. Under Ezra and Nehemiah, several thousand Jews returned from Babylonian exile to build a second Temple which once again became the focus of Jewish worship. In about 333 before the Common Era (B.C.E.), Alexander the Great, a Greek, was able to conquer large portions of the Middle East and beyond. The city of Jerusalem was among his conquests. Now, in general, Alexander proved to be a benevolent ruler. He allowed the Jews to carry on with their religion and customs with a relative degree of freedom. When Alexander died in 323 B.C.E., he had no heir, so his empire was divided among four of his top generals. The Seleucids controlled the northern part of the Middle East, often known as Syria, while the Ptolemies controlled Egypt and the Southern Levant.
The two powers warred back and forth often for possession of that area of the Levant which has become known at the Holy Land to Jews and Christians. The Seleucids consolidated their control over the area in around 200 B.C.E., but like Alexander before them, they too allowed the Jews to live in relative freedom to practice their customs and their religion. It was not until the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV, came to power in the early 160’s B.C.E. that things changed.
Antiochus played into a civil strife that had already arisen among the Jewish people. Jews had divided into two hostile factions. One group, called the Hellenizers, was in favor of modernization, and by modernization they meant conforming to their Greek-Syrian overlords by adopting Greek customs, Greek names, and Greek dress. The other group, the Traditionalists, favored maintaining the ancient Jewish ways — the observance of Sabbath, keeping of the food laws, keeping the Torah, and worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem. Antiochus took advantage of this contention between the Hellenizers and the Traditionalists by exploiting their rivalry to advance his personal ambitions in the Land of Israel. Antiochus used his political authority and military power to promote Hellenism and suppress Judaism. Under his leadership, Seleucid soldiers sacked the city of Jerusalem in about 168 B.C.E. They erected a statue of Zeus in the Holy Temple; they sacrificed swine, an unclean animal, on the altar; and they killed many of the Traditionalist priests who resisted this defilement. Antiochus became so oppressive that he ultimately outlawed any expression of Jewish faith. The study of Torah, the keeping of the Sabbath, the keeping of the dietary laws, and circumcision were all prohibited, often under pain of death.
During Antiochus’ campaign, he or his soldiers would go from city to city forcing Jews to bow and offer sacrifices to a statue of Zeus. The ruler became so consumed with his own power and role in history that he appropriated the name, Antiochus Theos Epiphanes, translated, “Antiochus God Manifest.” It was in the small Judean town of Modi’in, just a few miles northwest of Jerusalem, that a brave priest named Mattathias refused to bow before Zeus. He not only killed the Greco-Syrian soldier enforcing the regulation, but he and his sons rallied together and killed the entire contingent of solders dispatched to Modi’in.
Knowing that Antiochus would retaliate brutally, Mattathias and his five sons, Judah, Eleazar, Simon, John, and Jonathan, fled into the hills of the surrounding Judean wilderness. There they attracted an army of like-minded Jewish resistors, who fashioned themselves into a guerrilla fighting force. One year into the fight, Mattathias died and was succeeded by his son, Judah, nicknamed “Maccabeus — The Hammer.” Though vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped, these Jewish guerrillas succeeded in defeating the Syrian armies in battle after battle, ultimately taking back the city of Jerusalem, including the Holy Temple and the area surrounding it.
Once the Temple was back in Jewish hands, attention was turned to the problem that the Temple had fallen into disrepair and had been defiled. Repairs were quickly made, and a new and undefiled altar was constructed. Then, according to tradition, three years to the day after Antiochus had defiled it, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, a festival was inaugurated for the cleansing and rededication of the holy place.
According to the book of Maccabees (Chapter 4), the festival for the dedication of the Temple lasted eight days. That is not surprising to scholars, because when Solomon built the first Temple, he chose to dedicate it during the feast of Sukkoth, an eight-day festival. Since the Jews under Antiochus’ harsh rule would not have been able to celebrate the festival of Sukkoth in the fall, it is only natural that they would have wanted to do so, even belated, as a part of the Temple’s rededication. It is not until Talmudic times (300-500 C.E.) that we find reference to the “miracle of the oil.” The Talmud (Shabbat 21b-23a) tells us that as a part of the rededication, vessels of undefiled oil were sought for the lighting of the menorah. According to the Torah (Exodus 27:20-21), the Temple menorah is to burn day and night perpetually. Unfortunately, only one vessel of oil was found uncontaminated, about enough to burn for one day. Miraculously, that one day’s supply of oil burned for the eight days of the dedication — the time it took for a fresh supply of kosher olive oil to be prepared. Josephus, who also writes in the Roman period, referred to Hanukkah for the first time as the “Festival of Lights” (The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13, Chapter 7).
Being a post-biblical holiday, for centuries Hanukkah was celebrated by Jews very simply with the lighting of a Hanukiah, a nine-candled menorah used specifically for Hanukkah evenings. Scholars believe the exchange of gifts did not begin until relatively recently when Jews in areas where Christmas was celebrated with gift giving decided that in order to keep their own children from becoming jealous they too would begin to give gifts. Even so, Hanukkah gifts were quite modest, usually a small sum of money or Hanukkah “gelt.” It was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and mostly in America, that began to change. Dianne Ashton, professor of religious studies at Rowan University, in her book, “Hanukkah in America” (NYU Press, 2013), has shown how in America the evolution of Hanukkah and Christmas have gone hand in hand in many ways. The growth and development of both holidays has been fueled by rapid industrialization and the resulting blossoming of a consumer-based economy. The marketing around both Christmas and Hanukkah, designed to promote the consumption of goods, has led to the popularization of both holidays that is far beyond any celebrations that occurred in previous centuries. Now, nobody enjoys the benefits our free enterprise economic system more than I; however, I think most people would agree with me that the extreme commercialization of these holidays has detracted somewhat from their intended deeper spiritual meaning.
The name Hanukkah is based on the Hebrew word “chanak” (chet-nun-kaf), which means “to dedicate.” Remembering that our ancestors in centuries past struggled to maintain their religious freedom and to rededicate that place considered most holy to them, we should rededicate ourselves to the things that matter most — faith, love, justice. There is no doubt that the observance, prayers, acts of contrition, and seeking of forgiveness that occur for Jews from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are of greater import biblically and historically. But, we do have, during these cold winter months, an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the promises so recently made at Yom Kippur to uphold the high moral and ethical standards of our Jewish faith. It is, in fact, the pursuit of those values which, according to the Hebrew Prophets as echoed in our Aleinu prayer, will hasten the knowledge and sovereignty of the Creator encompassing the whole earth.
This year, as you observe your Festival of Lights, pledge yourself anew to those values the Prophet Isaiah (4:6) says will one day make the Jewish people a “light to the nations.” Isaiah records God’s message to us: “I will make you a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Almost incredible to imagine, isn’t it?