Chanukah begins this year (2015) at sundown on December 6.
I was all set to write a series of how-to posts about Chanukah, but when I looked to see what else was available, I realized there was no way I could best the offerings on MyJewishLearning.com. So here are some links to great Chanukah how-tos:
“It’s just a minor holiday.” When someone makes a big deal of Chanukah, someone will step in to remind that it is really no big deal. You seldom if ever hear that about any other Jewish holiday: why?
Chanukah began as the celebration of the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. In the early days it was a celebration of the military victory that established the rule of the priestly Hasmonean Dynasty. The Maccabees threw off the Greek ruler with military prowess, and celebrated by rededicating the Temple with a festival to replace the festival of Sukkot which the Greeks had made impossible that year. The Jews continued to celebrate it for eight days beginning on 25 Kislev every year, and they called it the Festival of Lights. We know this from a book by Josephus, who wrote about it about 250 years later.
The next we hear of the holiday, it is mentioned in passing a few times in the Mishnah, 200 years later. (for example, M. Bava Kama 6:6) but one gets the distinct idea that the rabbis don’t like to talk about it. Also, it has changed names: now it is Chanukah [Dedication.] When the rabbis finally do talk about it in the Gemara, a few hundred years after that, it has become a holiday based on the miracle story of a single bottle of oil that lasted for eight days.
Why the change? Why no mention of the military festival for several hundred years, and then this miracle story? In the meantime the Jewish People had had two great disasters, both associated with attempts to throw off the Romans with an armed uprising. The disaster was the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. The second disaster was the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 136. As Rabbi Lawrence Schiffmann wrote, “By the end of the [Bar Kokhba] war many Jews had been massacred, the land had been devastated again, and distinguished rabbis had been martyred.”
So it is no wonder that the rabbis did not encourage the celebration of the old Festival of Lights. It celebrated a military uprising, and subsequent uprisings were disasters. They turned instead to the miracle story of the oil, to turn young eyes from the glitter of weapons to the peaceful glow of the menorah in a dark night. That is also why you will hear people insist, “It’s a minor holiday.” There is a tradition for playing down Chanukah.
From Thanksgiving until January 1 in the United States, this sense of home as sanctuary is heightened for many Jews. Out in the world, we are surrounded by “the holiday season.” That phrase can mean a number of things, including:
For observant Christians, it is a remembrance of the birth of Jesus, preceded for some by the penitential season of Advent. Obviously, that’s not a Jewish celebration. We can enjoy Handel’s Messiah or the neighbor’s lighted creche, but for us, Jesus was at most a gifted teacher, not the messiah.
For most Americans, it is a once-yearly season of parties, gift-giving and family gatherings. When students tell me, “I don’t see Christmas as a religious holiday,” I know they see Christmas as a once-a-year season of warm feelings and nostalgia.
For some Americans, it is a season of excess: shopping, eating, and drinking too much, borrowing too much, envying too much, building towards a massive hangover in January. All of those things are a problem in terms of Jewish values.
For some Jews, it can be the season of feeling crowded by other people’s holidays. Or it can be a season of feeling left out.
“Aw, rabbi!” I can hear some readers saying, “Are you going to be a party pooper?” That is not my intent. What I’d like to do is to encourage you to think clearly about what you are doing this “holiday season.” How and what you celebrate is ultimately up to you.
This is the first of several articles I’m going to post about the season and for now I shall leave you with a question:
When you light your menorah for Chanukah, what are you dedicating, and to what are you dedicating it?
My last Christmas tree was in about 1992, I think. My elder son asked me why we had one if we weren’t Christians. I had not identified as Christian for about seven years, and I decided he had a point. I never celebrated Christmas again in my home.
The kids did not seem to miss it. Their birthdays both fell right after Christmas, and they’d always been overshadowed by that other guy’s birthday. From that year onward, I focused on a big celebration of their birthdays. They got presents, we had cake, and it was good.
So when I became a Jew, Christmas was easy: I’d not been observing the holiday for years. For me it had been a religious holiday, and once the religion dropped away, I discovered that we could enjoy other people’s decorations. When people asked about it usually Aaron would pipe up with, “We’re not Christians.” My younger son enjoyed celebrating with Christian relatives, and that was fine too.
So when I discovered that some Jews have Christmas trees, I was a little confused. Why do something at considerable trouble and expense while insisting that it doesn’t mean anything? I’ve never completely figured out the answer to that one.
Now that I’m a Jew, I celebrate Chanukah. I like the idea of a festival of rededication, especially at a time of the year when Jewishness seems to disappear into the dazzling show. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the officious folk who sniff that it “isn’t a Torah holiday.” Partly that’s because they don’t act so sniffy at Purim, which isn’t a Torah holiday either. And partly it’s because I think there’s something in the human spirit that cries out for shining lights and gathering when the nights are long and longer.
I still love those bright shining lights, whether they are for Chanukah or Christmas. My neighborhood is full of lights, and I love them all. But my home is a Jewish home, and I can’t imagine putting up a symbol of someone else’s holiday. This is my mikdash me’at, my little sanctuary, and I work to make it bright and beautiful with Jewish symbols and customs, sweet and savory with Jewish smells.
Those are bright enough, sweet enough, and warm enough: good enough for me!
Tonight is my favorite night of Chanukah: the first night, when two little candles shine in the dark.
We light the first, the shamash (SHA-mash) “helper” candle, then use it to light the first of the eight candles of the festival. The two are almost silly looking, standing up tall and proud in an almost-empty menorah.
Every year those little candles inspire me. They stand up bravely, lighting up the night, holding up the hope for brighter nights to come. They don’t apologize for standing almost alone.
They remind me of the people who stand up for what is right, long before it is popular to do so. They shine their light regardless of who is looking or who might laugh. They shine and shine until their wax is gone and they sputter out. And then the next night – a miracle! – we light again, and there will be THREE candles standing against the dark.
Let us all be brave as those candles of the first night: Shine your light no matter who shines with you. Stand tall and be proud to stand, no matter how dark the night.
Recently I went to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner. She asked all of us to bring our candlesticks and candles with us, and as the sun sank in the sky, we lined them up on the dinner table and lit them! It was a beautiful display.
Every set of candlesticks had a story. Some of the stories were simple: “These were my mother’s,” and some were long and involved. Some came from Israel, some from Walgreens. One set came from eBay. Some were very fancy (the ones from eBay were silver and pre-war Polish) and some simple (one set had been made in religious school by a now-grown child).
I’ve lit Shabbat candles in lots of places. I’ve scrunched up aluminum foil for “candlesticks,” or lit tea lights, and when I was a chaplain in a nursing home, we had electric lights. There’s nothing quite like the glow of a real candle, but even the little electric lights said “Shabbat” to us.
As we look forward to lighting the Chanukah candles, let’s pause to enjoy our Shabbat candles this week. Chanukah is fun, but it only comes once a year. The faithful little flames of Shabbat are there for us week after week, bringing comfort and joy.
May your Shabbat be a time of true rest, before the razzle-dazzle of Chanukah and the preparation of the Thanksgiving feast.