Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Story of Chanukkah, It's Telling is Long Overdue


With December upon us, I was thinking of my traditional Christmas post when it hit me that this week is Chanukkah, and I’ve written nothing about it. Ever.  Shame on me.  So I searched around for a way to tell its story and through the kind help of my-son-the-rabbi settled upon the version told on the website Judaism 101.  I’ve tinkered a bit with it, but it’s virtually lifted straight off that website. So thank you, whoever wrote this piece.  By the way, for those of you who wonder why one who writes about Greece is writing about Chanukkah… read on.

Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight-day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev (roughly equivalent to December).

Chanukkah is probably one of the best-known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as gift-giving and decoration. It is ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on the Jewish calendar.

Alexander the Great

The story of Chanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.

Antiochus IV
More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.

Judah Maccabee
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud (the written version of original oral law and commentary comprising Jewish civil and ceremonial law), at the time of the rededication there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. Significantly, an eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle, not the military victory.

Chanukkah is not a very important religious holiday. The holiday's religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu'ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and you won't find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim! Chanukkah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of Maccabees, which Jews do not accept as scripture.

The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or sometimes called a chanukkiah) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three blessings are recited. On subsequent nights only two blessings are said.

After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. Candles can be lit any time after dark but before midnight. The candles are normally allowed to burn out on their own after a half-hour minimum, but if necessary they can be blown out at any time after that haif-hour.  Special candle lighting rules apply on the Sabbath (Shabbat), by reason of the Sabbath rule against igniting or extinguishing a flame.

Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first). On the eighth night, all candles are lit.

It is traditional to eat fried foods on Chanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Among Ashkenazic Jews (essentially those from Central and Eastern Europe), this usually includes latkes (pronounced "lot-kuhs" or "lot-keys" depending on where your grandmother comes from—aka "potato pancakes").

Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians, so their children don’t feel left out of receiving gifts. It is extremely unusual for Jews to give Chanukkah gifts to anyone other than their own young children. The only traditional gift of the holiday is "gelt," small amounts of money--because coins are a symbol of independence!

Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus' oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight.

I never knew that last bit.  Perhaps I should have studied more and eaten less latkes.

Happy Chanukkah.



  1. Fascinating to read the real story, Jeff. Although my first partner was Jewish, I'd never heard of Chanukkah until my first December visit to the US, so I always regarded it as a sort of Jewish Thanksgiving. Glad to have been set straight!

    1. Another thing we have in common, Michael. My first partner was too! :)

  2. Jeff, thanks for this. My grandfather shared your faith but married a Gentile. I'm always keen to learn more about his faith. Unfortunately, because of his marriage we had no relationship with his family. Hopefully, in the ne hundred plus years things have changed.

    1. I responded below, Judith, but hit the wrong reply button. :)

  3. And then there is this retelling:

    Delightful, especially for the likes of me--who knows the songs from Hamilton by heart.

  4. I’m happy that you found the post helpful, but sad to hear of your grandfather’s separation from the family by his choice of bride. I believe things have changed, but not just between Jews and Gentiles, but among (virtually) all faiths and races in the US—which is not to say there’s not a long way to go.