HANUKKAH – WHAT IS IT?

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HANUKKAH – WHAT IS IT?

What Is Hanukkah?– the eight-day festival of light that begins on the eve of the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev — celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality.

More than twenty-one centuries ago, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who sought to forcefully Hellenize the people of Israel. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God.

When they sought to light the Temple’s menorah (the seven branched candelabrum), they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks; miraculously, the one-day supply burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity. To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah. At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah (candelabrum) lighting: a single flame on the first night, two on the second evening, and so on till the eighth night of Chanukah, when all eight lights are kindled.

On Chanukah we also add the Hallel and Al HaNissim in our daily prayers to offer praise and thanksgiving to G-d for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few… the wicked into the hands of the righteous.”  Hanukkah customs include eating foods fried in oil – latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (doughnuts); playing with the dreidel (a spinning top on which are inscribed the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, “a great miracle happened there”); and the giving of Chanukah gelt, gifts of money, to children.

In Hebrew, the word Hanukkah is written חֲנֻכָּה or חנוכה (Ḥănukkāh). It is most commonly transliterated to English as Chanukah or Hanukkah, the former because the sound represented by “CH” ([X], similar to the Scottish pronunciation of “loch”) does not exist in the English language. Furthermore, the letter “het” (ח), which is the first letter in the Hebrew spelling, is pronounced differently in modern Hebrew (voiceless uvular fricative) than in classical Hebrew (voiceless pharyngeal fricative [ħ]), and neither of those sounds is unambiguously representable in English spelling. Moreover, the ‘kaf’ consonant is germinate in classical (but not modern) Hebrew. Adapting the classical Hebrew pronunciation with the geminate and pharyngeal Ḥeth can lead to the spelling “Hanukkah”; while adapting the modern Hebrew pronunciation with no germination and uvular Ḥeth leads to the spelling “Chanukah”. It has also been spelled as “Hannukah”.

The story of Hanukkah is preserved in the books of the First and Second Maccabees, which describe in detail the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the menorah. These books are not part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) which came from the Palestinian canon; however, they were part of the Alexandrian canon which is also called the Septuagint. Both books are included in the Old Testament used by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, since those churches consider the books deuterocanonical. They are not included in the Old Testament books in most Protestant Bibles, since most Protestants consider the books apocryphal. Multiple references to Hanukkah are also made in the Mishna (Bikkurim 1:6, Rosh HaShanah 1:3, Taanit 2:10, Megillah 3:4 and 3:6, Moed Katan 3:9, and Bava Kama 6:6), though specific laws are not described. The miracle of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud, committed to writing about 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees. Ray Nissimn Gaon postulates in his Hakdamah Le’mafteach Hatalmud that information on the holiday was so commonplace that the Mishna felt no need to explain it. A modern-day scholar Reuvein Margolies suggests that as the Mishnah was redacted after the Bar Kochba revolt, its editors were reluctant to include explicit discussion of a holiday celebrating another relatively recent revolt against a foreign ruler, for fear of antagonizing the Romans.

The Gemara (Talmud), in tractate Shabbat, page 21b, focuses on Shabbat candles and moves to Hanukkah candles and says that after the forces of Antiochus IV had been driven from the Temple, the Maccabees discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, with enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a single day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days (the time it took to have new oil pressed and made ready). The Talmud presents three options: (1) The law requires only one light each night per household; (2) A better practice is to light one light each night for each member of the household; and (3) The most preferred practice is to vary the number of lights each night.

In Sephardic families, the head of the household lights the candles, while in Ashkenazic families, all family members light. Except in times of danger, the lights were to be placed outside one’s door, on the opposite side of the Mezuza, or in the window closest to the street. Rashi, in a note to Shabbat 21b, says their purpose is to publicize the miracle. The blessings for Hanukkah lights are discussed in tractate Succah, p. 46a.

The Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus narrates in his book, Jewish Antiquities XII, how the victorious Judas Maccabeus ordered lavish yearly eight-day festivities after rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem that had been profaned by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Josephus does not say the festival was called Hanukkah but rather the “Festival of Lights”:

“Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.”

The story of Hanukkah is alluded to in the book of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. The eight-day rededication of the temple is described in 1 Maccabees 4:36 et seq, though the name of the festival and the miracle of the lights do not appear here. A story similar in character, and obviously older in date, is the one alluded to in 2 Maccabees 1:18 et seq according to which the relighting of the altar fire by Nehemiah was due to a miracle which occurred on the 25th of Kislev, and which appears to be given as the reason for the selection of the same date for the rededication of the altar by Judah Maccabee.

The Scroll of Antiochus concludes with the following words:

…After this, the sons of Israel went up to the Temple and rebuilt its gates and purified the Temple from the dead bodies and from the defilement. And they sought after pure olive oil to light the lamps therewith, but could not find any, except one bowl that was sealed with the signet ring of the High Priest from the days of Samuel the prophet and they knew that it was pure. There was in it [enough oil] to light [the lamps therewith] for one day, but the God of heaven whose name dwells there put therein his blessing and they were able to light from it eight days. Therefore, the sons of Ḥashmonai made this covenant and took upon themselves a solemn vow, they and the sons of Israel, all of them, to publish amongst the sons of Israel, [to the end] that they might observe these eight days of joy and honor, as the days of the feasts written in [the book of] the Law; [even] to light in them so as to make known to those who come after them that their God wrought for them salvation from heaven. In them, it is not permitted to mourn, neither to decree a fast [on those days], and anyone who has a vow to perform, let him perform it.

Hanukkah is celebrated with a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the 8-day holiday, some are family-based and others communal. There are special additions to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals.

Hanukkah is not a “Sabbath-like” holiday, and there is no obligation to refrain from activities that are forbidden on the Sabbath, as specified in the Shulkhan Arukh. Adherents go to work as usual, but may leave early in order to be home to kindle the lights at nightfall. There is no religious reason for schools to be closed, although, in Israel, schools close from the second day for the whole week of Hanukkah. Many families exchange gifts each night, such as books or games and “Hanukkah Gelt” is often given to children. Fried foods (such as latkes potato pancakes, jelly doughnuts sufganiyot and Sephardic Bimuelos) are eaten to commemorate the importance of oil during the celebration of Hanukkah.

The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not for the “lighting of the house within”, but rather for the “illumination of the house without,” so that passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle (i.e. the triumph of the few over the many and of the pure over the impure). Accordingly, lamps are set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street. It is customary amongst some Ashkenazi Jews to have a separate menorah for each family member (customs vary), whereas most Sephardi Jews light one for the whole household. Only when there was danger of antisemitic persecution were lamps supposed to be hidden from public view, as was the case of Persia under the rule of the Zoroastrians, or in parts of Europe before and during World War II. However, most Hasidic groups light lamps near an inside doorway, not necessarily in public view. According to this tradition, the lamps are placed on the opposite side from the mezuzah, so that when one passes through the door s/he is surrounded by the holiness mitzvot (the commandments).

Generally women are exempt in Jewish law from time-bound positive commandments, although the Talmud requires that women engage in the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles “for they too were involved in the miracle.” In practice, only the male members of Orthodox households are obliged to light the menorah. In practice, some Sephardi households involve everyone in the candle lighting, with the head of the household lighting the first candle each night, the wife the second candle, and the children, eldest first, lighting the subsequent candles.

Kathy Kiefer

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