Hanukkah: A festival of lights and dark houses

This is what Hanukkah is not:

  1. It is not a celebration of anybody’s birth.
  2. It is not a religious holiday – although it does involve consecrations and temples.
  3. It does not involve flashy decorations or twinkling lights.

If you don’t live in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, you can always tell the Jewish houses during December. They’re the ones that are dark.

And yet, Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights. So what gives?

OK, let’s go back a second. Here is what Hanukkah IS about:

  1. It is about the celebration of a triumph of a small religious minority over a conquering army.
  2. It is about a miracle of oil lasting longer than it should.
  3. It is a minor holiday.

Actually, my Rabbi, Ellen Dreyfus of B’nai Yehuda Beth Shalom in Homewood, calls Hanukkah a “fourth rate holiday.” Especially compared with Christmas – which is one of the two most important holidays in the Christian religion.

We celebrate Hanukkah because…well, because it is the darkest time of year, and as Rabbi Dreyfus points out, “every culture around the globe has some kind of festival having to do with light this time of year. That’s kind of a human instinct.”

The Hanukkah festival is pinned around a victory of the Maccabees about 165 years before the birth of Jesus Christ (who was born, for those who think Christmas is only about shopping, on Dec. 25). The Syrian Greek empire, led by Antiochus, had overrun Judea, and Jews were forced to give up their religion (one of the many times in history, by the way, when Jews were forced to either convert or practice their religion underground). Some Jews headed for the hills, quite literally, living in caves and fighting battles against Antiochus’ forces under the leadership of Judah Maccabeus.

About three years later, they won, and as the victors strode into the city temple to take back their religion, they found it desecrated: the Torah (which is referred to as the Old Testament by non-Jews) was destroyed; there was a statue of Antiochus (as Zeus); and a pig had been slaughtered and offered up as a sacrifice to the statue. These are big no-nos. Jews explicitly do not worship graven images, and to be Kosher is to not eat pork, which was (and still is by many) considered unclean.

So they cleaned it up, in ritual fashion, according to religious law. Part of that ritual was the lighting of the candelabra, or Menorah, which was lit with oil. The Maccabees found enough oil to last one night, but it would take at least a week to get more. In the spirit of a people whose unofficial motto is, “What the hell, it’s worth a shot,” they lit the menorah anyway and – here’s the miracle – it lasted for eight days, until the oil stores were replenished.

Because of this, we light the menorah, or hanukkiah as it’s called in Hebrew, for eight nights sometime in December, according to the Jewish calendar (we are in the year 5772 in case you were wondering). And we give gifts each night. This year, Hannukah starts on the night of Dec. 20.

And, not surprisingly, oil is a huge part of the symbolism of the holiday. We soak potatoes in it and make latkes. We throw dough in it and make doughnuts. We fry…well a lot.

But what we don’t do is put up lights. Or have trees.

I always thought that the tree thing was part of the not having graven images in your house. But a tree isn’t exactly engraved. It’s a natural, living thing.

Rabbi Dreyfus points out that it’s also a very important thing to religious Christians. It has to do with Jesus’ resurrection. For many, the ornaments have specific references to specific passages in the New Testament.

“When Jews take on those decorations, not only are they dissing their own traditions, they’re insulting the religious traditions of Christians,” says Rabbi Dreyfus, who just ended a term as the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

But decorating isn’t restricted. Jews often make elaborate decorations indoors, and have multiple menorahs around the house. And we are told that we should light a menorah and put it in our windows. So Jewish houses aren’t exactly dark, they’re just…well…not as bright as Christmas decorations.

Here’s my thing, though. Hanukkah is a holiday about the triumph of a minority over a majority. We’re still celebrating it about 2,100 years later. And the reason we’re still celebrating is that Jews throughout history have not done what the majority culture have told them to do. And that’s something worth celebrating.

The Maccabeats

Still confused about Hanukkah? Check out this great music video.


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