Judaism 101: What Hanukkah is and what it isn’t

Posted on December 11, 2009


Our Peterbald cat Sasson watching our oil hanukkiah last year.

Hanukkah (also transliterated as Chanukah), a joyous but minor holiday begins this evening at sundown and continues for eight days. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is marked by reciting prayers and lighting a hanukkiah, a nine branched candelabrum on which one additional light is lit each night for eight nights. Since tonight is also Erev Shabbat we light the hanukkiah first and Shabbat candles second. Oily foods are traditional holiday dishes. In the middle ages gambling was a popular Hanukkah pastime (to the chagrin of rabbis) a remnant of which is the dreidle, a spinning top with different Hebrew letters on its sides each of which result in either winning or losing money or in the case of one of the letters a neutral result. In western countries Hanukkah is also a gift giving holiday in imitation of Christmas, but in Israel the traditional gift giving holidays are Rosh Hashana and Pesach.

Hanukkah marks a ritual miracle that occured in the context of a war. After the death of Alexander the Great his empire was divided into three parts, Greece/Macedonia, Syria, and Egypt, each ruled by one of his generals and their descendants. Judah was first ruled by theGreek rulers of Egypt and then by Greek Syria. In the middle of the second century BCE one of the Greek Syrian rulers tried to outlaw all religious practices other than worship of the Greek gods. This resulted in a 20 year Jewish guerilla war that militarily was fought to a draw but politically resulted in 80 years of Jewish independence. Early in that war the Temple in Jerusalem was recaptured and rededicated. The miracle of the single day sized container of oil that lasted eight days (when additional oil could be obtained) was emphasized by rabbis in the Roman period who wanted to downplay the celebration of a military victory after the defeat of two catastrophic Jewish revolts in the first and second centuries CE which were inspired in part by the success of that earlier war. Since the rebirth of Jewish independence in Israel six decades ago the military aspect of the holiday has returned to prominence.

Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. For a holiday that celebrates the refusal of our ancestors to assimilate into classical antiquity’s majority Hellenic culture to be turned into an immitation of the majority culture’s central religious holiday is perversely ironic. I refer my readers to Penelope Trunk’s blog post Five things people say about Christmas that drive me nuts in which Trunk quotes Jacob Sullum’s article Oy, Tannenbaum which concludes “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas and keep Christmas out of Chanukah.”