Mama Deb (mamadeb) wrote,
Mama Deb

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.
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