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What Is Channukka?

Perhaps the most consistently misunderstood and misrepresented holiday in the Jewish calendar is Channukka. The misunderstanding has a variety of causes. Channukka is actually a relatively minor observance, but in Jewish communities located in Christian countries it often takes on an unwarranted significance because of its close proximity to another holiday in December; indeed, in 2016, the first night of Channukka was December 25, so that the two “C” words coincide.

In the west, one frequently encounters attempts to universalize Channukka as being about “religious freedom”; in Israel, where the pressures of the surrounding culture don’t exist, the words “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few” are often extracted from the ‘al Hanissim and used to launch inapt, if understandable, comparisons with the 1948 War of Independence or even the Six-Day War of 1967, focusing on the amazing military victories while ignoring the issues over which the war was fought or the reason why the holiday was established in the first place.

So what, actually, is Channukka?

The basic observance is simple enough. Today, the common practice is to light one light (preferably olive oil) for each of the eight nights, such that on the first night a single light is burning, and on the eighth eight lights are burning (plus the candle used to light the actual Channukka lights). The kindling of the lights is generally accompanied by the song Ma'oz Tzur. Three times a day over the eight days, the ‘al Hanissim prayer is recited, added to the rest of the daily services. It is customary also to give small gifts to children, and during the course of the holiday to eat things fried in oil: In homes of people with European backgrounds, this is the humble potato pancake, called a latke in Yiddish; in the Middle East, it is the delicious jelly donuts available on every street corner in Israel during the season, called sufganiyot.

And that’s basically it.

This is a translation of the language of the ‘al Hanissim:

For the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the deliverances,  and for the wars which You fought for our fathers in those days at this time.

In the days of Mattithyahu ben Yochanan, high priest, Chashmona’i, and his sons, when the evil kingdom of Greece rose against Your people, Israel, to make them forget Your Torah, and to divert them from the laws of Your will, and You in Your great mercy stood up for them in the time of their woe; You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong.

You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the evil into the hands of the righteous, and scoffers into the hands of those engaged in Your Torah. And You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and for Your people Israel You made great deliverance and salvation as this very day, and afterwards your sons came to the precinct of Your house, and cleared Your Temple, purified Your holy site, and kindled lights in the courtyards of Your Sanctuary, and established these eight days of Dedication [Channukka] to express thanks and praise to Your great Name.

So Channukka means “dedication.” Clearly something more than a spectacular military victory is going on here.

The source for the Channukka story is the Talmud, beginning on Shabbath 20a, where the question is asked, Mai Channukka? (“What is Channukka?”). It proceeds to relate the story of the miracle of the oil. This is what happened:

In the aftermath of the Greek conquest of the Middle East under Alexander the Great, the Jewish province of Judaea became a major battleground between the Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt, and the Seleucid dynasty, which had taken over the territory of “Syria,” a sprawling state encompassing modern Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, as well as parts of Turkey and Iran. Eventually, the Seleucid Antiochus III Megas succeeded in wresting the territory from Ptolemaic hands. When he did, the Jewish family that had collaborated with the Ptolemaic regime was turned out, and new collaborators took their place.

Antiochus III wasn’t so bad; however, his grandson, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was another thing altogether. His surname means “exalted”; his own people punned on it, calling him Epimanes (“the Nut”). Antiochus IV decided that he was a god, and demanded that he be worshipped as one. The descendants of the people who had been turned out by his grandfather saw an opportunity for a comeback, and began to whisper in his ear: It seems that there were these people who didn’t follow the king’s customs or wishes, but arrogantly continued their own laws and customs….

Thus, a handful of collaborators who had abandoned the Torah and its commandments for Greek customs and practices sought to impose their will on the rest of Israel. Eventually, the king was persuaded to issue three decrees, banning circumcision (which the Greeks viewed as mutilation of the divine human form), banning the Sabbath (which they ridiculed as a waste of time), and banning the observance of Rosh Chodesh, which fixes the months of the Jewish calendar.

The Jews resisted; the king used force. The resistance coalesced around the Chashmona’i family, whose battle cry, Mi la-Shem elai! (“Who is for Ha-Shem, to me!”), echoed that of Moses (Exodus XXXII,26). The result, in a series of very hard-fought campaigns, was the eventual defeat of the largest, best-equipped, and most experienced army in the world at the time by a small and militarily inexperienced nation, who had only their faith on their side.

When the Temple was cleansed of all the trappings of idolatry, there could be found only a single container of oil with the seal of the high priest, which was pure and could be used to light the mënora, the great seven-branched candelabra in the Holy of Holies, sufficient for one day; the process of producing the hyper-pure oil used for the purpose and transporting it from the site would take eight days. What to do?

They followed the law and poured the oil into the lamp, and one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days, until the fresh oil could be brought.

That is what we are celebrating: The victory of the pure and holy Torah and its practices over the idolatrous Greeks and the assimilationists who sought to substitute their values for the timeless values of the Torah.

If you are Jewish, bear that in mind, as you contemplate the lights, disseminate the story of the miracle, and munch your latkes or donuts, and re-dedicate yourself to those values; cast the light of Torah into the surrounding darkness.