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Mama Deb
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Mama Deb [userpic]
A Great Miracle Happened There

Today is the fourth day of Chanukah, rapidly closing in on the fifth.

Seems a reasonable time to talk about this holiday.



You all know the story, or parts of it. The Greek-Syrians had conquered the land of Israel (not Palestine yet - that's the Roman name for the country.) And they brought with them the Greek culture. Many of the younger Jews liked this, and there is much to recommend it. It was plays and philosophy, sports and fitness. It also said that Judaism was irrational and behind the times (although apparently, when the young Jewish men cleansed themselves after sports, they used *kosher* olive oil. Honestly, it's hard for pure olive oil to be anything else.)

And, in fact, Jewish law was made...difficult to practice. The Temple in Jerusalem was defiled. Study was forbidden. I've also heard that droit de signeur was practiced. Circumscion was made illegal - some of the more assimilated tried to reverse theirs, while others did milah in private and hoped not to be discovered. There are stories of young mothers killing themselves.

Even the dreidl comes from this time: that way, if the authorities came around to find out if you've been learning on the side, you can cover up your materials and take out the top. "No, no studying here. We're gambling? See?" (I'm also reminded of an episode of Star Trek:TNG, the one with Spock on Romulus, teaching Vulcan using a top...)

A group of zealots led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers led the resistance in an attack against the occupying general and they won the Temple back.

This holiday commemorates this victory of a small force over a larger one, and of the forces of halacha over that of assimilation. When we say the grace after meals or any of the prayer services during this holiday, we say an extra paragraph that talks about this victory. These paragraphs do not mention candles.

However, there was a miracle concerning light that occured at the same time. The Menorah in the Temple (a huge, seven banched affair) was lit every night of the year, but when the Temple was desecrated, it could not be. The conquerers had despoiled the olive oil so it could not be used, and it would take seven days to get a clean supply (actually, apparently, the Menorah wasn't even available, and they made one using the hollow hilts of their swords, and I'd love to see a Chanukah lamp that was shaped that way.) The miracle was, of course, that the light stayed on until the new supply arrived.

We are commanded to publicize this miracle. The minimum is to light one light every night of Chanukah. One. Single. Light. However, the custom arose very early to light eight. The only question was, do we start with eight and count down or start with one and count up. Hillel said count up, and so we do because it's always better to increase in joy. Since the miracle involved oil, it also became customary to eat foods fried in oil.

Gift-giving, beyond a few coins, is a recent innovation, mostly because the holiday happens around the same time as Christmas and it's unpleasant not being involved in that. My family never did this, though, and it makes me a bit uncomfortable.

As it memorializes a military victory, it's hardly a celebration of peace. It's also not a solistice festival, even though it happens to occur around that time. If it were one, that would be mentioned as part of the tradition, as Judasim has no problems celebrating seasons - one of Passover's names is Chag Aviv, or Festival of Spring, and we correct our calendar to make sure that Passover is always in spring. But it's not. It's a coincidence - just as Veteran's Day has nothing to do with autumn and St. Patrick's Day doesn't celebrate Spring, even though it occurs close to the spring equinox.

As it also is the victory over assimilation, seeing it become "the Jewish Christmas" is kinda...boggleworthy.

It's a lovely, easy holiday - there's the extra paragraphs plus songs of praise in the daily prayers and there's the lighting and that's *it*. I'm pretty happy the way it is. And seeing house after house with candles or oil lamps in the windows, flickering in the early night is just beautiful.

Comments

Thanks for the interesting history lesson! I had heard some of it before, but not all, and it's good to know the whole picture.

You're welcome.

I just wanted to say that it made me very happy to read this ^^

Even the dreidl comes from this time: that way, if the authorities came around to find out if you've been learning on the side, you can cover up your materials and take out the top. "No, no studying here. We're gambling? See?"

Fascinating! I had been wondering about that.

It's also not a solistice festival, even though it happens to occur around that time.

I don't think the increasing prominence Hannukah has been receiving is solely a matter of Hukkat haGoyim. I think that at least part of that is that as Diaspora Jews found themselves on more northern climes like Eastern Europe, Britain and Denmark, the need to make brightness in the dark part of the year was handily met by Hannukah which just happens to fall then.

I'm not saying that didn't happen, but Chanukah is celebrated as much in Sphardi countries, isn't it?

I often wish Chanukah had happened another time of year so these confluences wouldn't happen.

Although, from what I've read, and I find it sad to say this - Chanukah was one of the holidays that would have just disappeared in this country as people became more assimilated (like Purim, Tisha B'Av, Shavuot and Sukkot) if it weren't for the proximaty of Christmas and the need to do something to make up for the lack of Santa Claus (for those who didn't give in entirely.)

So, I don't know.



It was also pulled out of obsurity by the zionists. They needed a Jewish holiday that was fighting oppression and winning and Channukah worked well for that.

And this is a bad thing?

thank you for this post - it's a lovely summary of the development of Hanukah.

one quibble, though. I know there's nothing explcitly about the solstice/return of light in most of what tradtion has to say about Hanukah, but it strikes me as too much of a coincidence that the way the rabbis found around the excessive miltary-ness of the holiday involved light, at just the time of year when light is scarce, you know?

I agree that observing the solstice wasn't the original *intent* of the holiday, but holidays happening in seasons tend to pick up aspects of those seasons and their symbols tend to develop multiple meanings. The clovers of St. Patrick's Day, for example, represent Ireland, the Christian Trinity, and the greenness of spring all at once. So, at least for me, lighting an increasing number of candles every night for a week during the darkest part of the year is silmultaneously a remembrance of the miracle of the oil, an echo of the eight days of Sukkot, and a sign of hope that light and the sun will return again to the world - the world will keep turning and spring will come.

also, in the depths and darkness of winter it makes me very happy to able to wish people a happy 'Holiday of Lights'.

Chag Urim Sameach!

It's a pet peeve of mine, I do admit.

I do NOT want it to be a solistice thing because then it buys into the theory that "every culture has one", even when it's patently untrue.

Also, there's a story in the Talmud - Adam ha-Rishon saw that the darkness was increasing, so he lit fires, but then the darkness decreased. Instead of deciding that it was his fires that did it, he realized it was the natural way of things, and never did so again. To light fires to bring in the sun is a pagan thing, which became the Roman Saturnalia, which then became Christmas.

If you turn Chanukah into a Solistice thing, you connect it with pagan celebrations. We don't need to hope that the light will return - we know it will because it's part of the way haShem designed the universe.

If you turn Chanukah into a Solistice thing, you connect it with pagan celebrations.

Like the egg and the parsely of Pesach connect it with pagan symbols of spring and rebirth? (sorry, I spent a lot of my academic life for a couple of years learning all about the pagan roots of and connections to Jewish holidays, among other things. )

I understand your peeve, and understand the desire to see things Jewish as completely separate from pagan and Christian traditions, but for me (and YMM definitely V on this one), Judaism is the cultural and religous product of the Jewish people, and as such has been defnitely influenced over the millenia by the cultures and peoples that surround it. This means that I'm okay with highlighting the 'light in the dark' aspects of Hanukah, even as those aspects echo other non-Jewish Nothern Hemisphere dark of winter traditions.

We don't need to hope that the light will return - we know it will because it's part of the way haShem designed the universe.

yes, and in the darkness of December, it's lovely to have an excuse to light extra candles indoors and remind ourselves of that truth. It might be totally idiosyncratic - come the end of December, I honestly often have trouble believing/trusting/remembering that the days will get longer and spring will come again.

um, and upon re-reading this entire comment could probably be titled "The Ways I Look At the World Which Make Me A Reconstructionist Jew". I don't at all mean to imply that you have to share my beliefs or ideas - I just find all of this fascinating, especially the multidude of Jewish perspectives on something as (seemingly) simple as the Hanukah story we learned in Hebrew school

Like the egg and the parsely of Pesach connect it with pagan symbols of spring and rebirth? (sorry, I spent a lot of my academic life for a couple of years learning all about the pagan roots of and connections to Jewish holidays, among other things. )

PESACH is a symbol of springtime. That it has green herbs (my family happens to use cucumber and I know a number who use potato) is not a big surprise, is it? (As for eggs - I have feeling they arose as a symbol of rebirth in many cultures independently. There's no need for them to have come to Judaism from pagans - it could easily have been the other way around. We do affect the cultures in which we have been exiled, too.)

Thing is, when you highlight that, you turn Chanukah into yet another Solistice festival, which kinda subverts the entire meaning behind the holiday.

I've got 2 problems w/linking chanukah and solstice: one is that it's not specified as a winter holiday (as pesach is specified as a (beginning of) spring one). The other is that chanukah isn't always that close to the solstice, especially if you want it to overlap in a specific way (i.e. have the first day coincide, or the last, etc) rather than taking advantage of the fact that a holiday which is a quarter of a month long is going to cover a lot of calendar territory.

Nod. This was triggered by a post a week or so ago that made a big deal about the "Solistice festivals" and how all of them were during the last two weeks of December.

Since Chanukah *isn't* always then, it really made no sense.

If Chanukah were a solistice thing, or just a winter thing, we would know it.

Did you happen to read this Chanukah post, Moving past two-mindedness, and if so, what did you think of it?

Chag urim sameach!

I just looked at it now.

First let it be known, that the Maccabeans became kings, which is wrong as they were Kohanim, and Kohanim are not to be kings. And they were poor kings.

In many ways, there was not the happiest of endings to this story.

And I am not going to excuse this. To me,one of the strengths of Judaism is that we do NOT expect people, even great people to be perfect, and we know that bad things have been done.

But we're getting into belief here, and I *do* believe the miracle happened, and I absolutely believe the written Torah was revealed, as was at least part of the Oral Torah. And I know a great many intelligent and scholarly people who do not need to be of two minds.

I didn't mean to cause offense, and hope I haven't done so. I just thought it was an interesting essay, especially her point that a mature relationship to this holiday means finding a way to deal with both of its stories, the military one and the miracle of the oil. For my own part, I find it really fascinating that the sages of the Talmud chose to shift focus in the way that they did; the miracle of the oil is a much easier story for me to relate to, and I find the military story less comfortable...

I'm not sure what you mean by change in focus, as the military victory is described, as I said, three times a day plus after each major meal.

Also, children play with dreidls, and get chocolate Maccabees and talk about it in school. I'm sure they even play games with that as the basis.

It's not comfortable, no, but it's not forgotten.

But the candles are far more visible and they are the symbol of the holiday and the only mitzvah involved. Maybe because it's about the only things we can do.

You know that candlelighting itself is only mentioned in gemara? Not even mishnah? It's about as rabbinical a thing as you can get. I don't know.

Actually, it is mentioned in a mishna, in passing, in Bava Kama 6:8. If a shopkeeper has a fire going inside his shop, and a camel laden with flax walks past and starts a fire, the camel-driver is responsible. If the shopkeeper's fire was on the street, then he's responsible. But R Yehuda says that on Chanukah, when everyone lights candles at their front doors, the camel driver is on notice about this danger, and it's his responsibility to be careful.

Really? Thank you!

Nice and practical, too.

There is some notions of the fact that it is the festival of lights around the darkest time of year. Lights around solstice are *very* common.

But not universal, and I can think of only one midwinter festival from that part of the world.