Hanukkah: Meaning and Traditions

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Worldwide, we have a lot of holidays.

One that is being celebrated just about everywhere this month is the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah).

Lady Pennywhistle and I have undertaken to explain a bit about it in a three-part series beginning this week.

If you're planning to celebrate by lighting the menorah, Hanukkah this year falls on 20-28 December. If you'd just like to know more about it, Chabad.org has lots of information.

In the interest of full disclosure, and to let you know where we're coming from: Lady Pennywhistle is Israeli. I am not Jewish, but I speak Yiddish and know a fair amount about US Jewish culture.

This week, Lady P is going to tell us a bit about the history of Hanukkah. And I am going to kibitz1 – DG

Hanukkah: Meaning and Traditions

Lady Pennywhistle gives us the view from Israel:

Hanukkah dreydl.

The one thing that often surprises outsiders about Hanukkah is that for Jews – especially Jews living in Israel – it's actually not that big a deal. It's a neat holiday, with some fun songs that you learn in kindergarten and a couple of great fatty foods connected to it, but it is not as central as pop culture tends to make it. Hanukkah isn't even an 'official' Jewish holiday, in the sense that it has no basis in the Bible (since it's based on events that happened a while later, during the Helenistic rule of the Land of Israel), and is even only barely mentioned in the Talmud. But that's part of what makes it so interesting, I guess.

So, what is it all about? What connects candles, jelly donuts, gambling, and guerrillas?

DG adds: In case you don't know, Hanukkah celebrations involve lighting candles, eating jelly donuts or potato pancakes, playing low-stakes games with a dreydl (Hebrew: sevivon), and remembering the military accomplishments of some guerrilla fighters. We'll tell more about that later. Go on, Lady P.

To help you understand it, I'm going to take a bit of a tangent, and ask you to imagine the hypothetical future course of a holiday celebrating independence – let's take the USAnian 4th of July, since it's probably the most well-known in pop-culture and will be easiest for me to write about. So, on the 4th of July, the Americans celebrate the defeat of the British redcoats and the establishment of a free country. It's summer, so they do a lot of outside stuff, like firework displays and barbeques. So far, so good. Now let's fast-forward a couple thousand years. Also, let's imagine that during these many centuries the US has been taken over by other countries, and former Americans spread around the world, but are still proud of their culture and try to hold on to their original customs and holidays in whatever land they end up in. So they would still celebrate the 4th of July, but over time, as things change and other customs are absorbed into their culture, the holiday would change as well. Perhaps it would be influenced by other mid-summer holidays, for example, and by customs like dancing around a big bonfire. Perhaps the old stories of the victory over the British soldiers will get more mythical in nature. Perhaps the barbeque will become a custom inseparable from these stories (instead of a fun thing to do when you have a day off in the middle of summer), with bits of folklore explaining how the charred burgers and ears of corn are related to the fires that drove away the evil redcoats (which will also become the reason for lighting great bonfires and shooting fireworks). That is all a little far-fetched, but not unreasonable. It's the sort of thing that happens to cultures and customs everywhere, over time.

And it's the sort of thing that happened to Hanukkah.

DG: I can absolutely envision my great-great-great-grandnieces and -nephews doing this. They'd probably think 'Yankee Doodle' had some sort of hidden messages in it. Come to think of it, nobody gets that 'macaroni' reference, anyway…

Many, many years ago – back in 167 BCE2, to be exact – a small group of Jewish extremists decided to rebel against their Hellenic rulers. There are many stories about the exact causes for this rebellion. In Jewish tradition, the Greeks have become completely evil tyrants, seeking to stamp out Judaism; in reality, of course, things were more complex than that (as should be obvious to anyone who knows a bit about how tolerant of other religions the Hellenics were usually), and the rebels themselves were actually composed of two factions: the more fundamentalist Maccabees, who completely objected to the Hellenistic influences on the Jews, and in fact spent quite a lot of their warring energy on fighting those Jews that assimilated into Hellenic culture, and the more pragmatic Hasmoneans, who were in it mostly for political reasons (and later, when they became the ruling dynasty, were fairly 'assimilated' themselves). But they both had a common cause, which was the war against the Greeks. After a couple of years of dealing with guerrilla warfare, the Greeks gave up and left the crazy natives alone, and the Jews triumphantly marched back onto Temple Mount and re-dedicated the temple (the word 'Hanukkah' actually means 'inauguration' in Hebrew). Hooray! Let us celebrate. Let us light candles in the darkness of mid-winter nights, and remember the glories of our victory!

DG: A good reason for a party.

But over the years, after the Hasmonean dynasty fell to infighting and Israel was conquered by the Romans – and later, by many other people – and after the temple was demolished, giving rise to the less daily-sacrifice-to-God-with-people-in-robes-chanting and the more abstract and spiritual religion we know as Judaism today, and after many Jews were exiled and started developing their own Jewish communities in diaspora, this holiday changed, as well.
Pretty much the first thing that happened was that the religious authorities made sure that the holiday was not about a (secular) victory in war, but about God. The emphasis changed from celebrating the victory in the Greeks-vs.-Maccabees battle3 to celebrating the return to the temple, with an added story about a miracle where a small jug of pure oil, which was all that was left after the evil Greeks defiled the rest of the oil, was somehow enough to light the Menorah for the eight days necessary until new pure oil could be brought in. So, God was behind everything. And the reason we light candles is because of the Menorah story.

DG: There's a blessing for lighting the Menorah   – there's a blessing, or bracha, for everything.

Then over the years, as the diaspora communities developed their own ways of life, absorbing some of the culture of where they lived, a lot of these influences made it into Hanukkah. Fried foods – which are, one must admit, a fairly common thing to be eating in the middle of winter – became a holiday staple, and were connected to that oil story from before. In some places in Europe, traditional Christmas-y foods like jelly donuts became traditional Hanukkah foods as well. Gift-giving was incorporated into the holiday as well, in the form of small monetary gifts (known in European communities as gelt, from the Yiddish word for 'money'). And where there are family get-togethers, and gifts of money, and long winter evenings spent inside, is it any surprise that a little game, where you gamble on the side that a spinning top would fall on, became a popular pastime, and then a formal tradition (with a few stories tying it to the holiday: one, that the Jews oppressed by the evil Greeks would keep tops on their person, and if any Greek soldiers stepped in on their Torah4 study sessions would quickly whip them out and pretend to be playing that instead; two, that the letters on the sides of the top actually stand for Nes Gadol Haya Sham, 'a great miracle happened there'. In fact the only tradition that actually has any basis in the Talmud5 is lighting candles. Everything else just developed over time.

This gives us a lot of the holiday as we now know it. But in the recent decades, there have been a few more developments as well: The first is the State of Israel, and the Zionist movement before it. A mostly secular movement, that strived to distance itself from the diaspora, they quickly latched on to the secular origins of Hanukkah, and brought back the triumph against the Greeks and establishment of an independent country as a major element of the holiday.

DG: The four letters on the dreydl that say Nes Gadol Haya Sham, 'A great miracle happened there', or 'here', if you change it to Nes Gadol Haya Poh for Israel, are sometimes said to represent the four exiles of the nation of Israel.

Whether we see Hanukkah as a holiday with religious significance, or a patriotic holiday, there's a lot of history packed into its two millennia of observance.

Next week, we'll look at some songs and customs of this holiday.

The Post General Features Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

Lady Pennywhistle

05.12.11 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1'Kibitz' means to look over somebody's shoulder and make 'helpful' suggestions. A kibitzer is the back-seat driver of life.2BCE='Before Common Era'.3In modern-day Israel, where Maccabee is the name of a sport association, there is still a tendency to 'recreate' that battle by having a football or basketball match between a Maccabee team and some Greek team. True story! – Lady P4Torah=Biblical books of the Law.5Books of interpretation of the Jewish Law.

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