Chanukah approaches with December.
We are readying our lives by buying candles and dreidels, dewaxing and polishing our Chanukiot, planning eight nights of gifts, grating our Latkes, looking up recipes for Ponchkes (Yiddish)/Sufganiot (Hebrew)/ Donuts, and planning festive celebrations and meals with friends. For us and our children Chanukah in this day and age is a big deal.
This minor holiday has become quite a Jewish winter gathering in the United States in response to the other December holiday that surrounds us. It looms large in the consciousness of the American media (and hence the non-Jewish and Jewish public) as society desires to demonstrate ecumenical inclusivity around the enormity of Christmas.
The story of this winter equinox holiday lies in the apocryphal book of Maccabees and in Judith. These books did not make it into the Biblical Canon. The story of the Maccabees was too close in time to the fixing of the Bible’s contents. While the victory of the Hasmonean’s over the Syrian Greeks and the restoration of the Temple was something to celebrate, recent memory at the turn of the millennia of the disastrous reigns of the Hasmonean dynasty, was a more than good reason to downplay the holiday.
In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud who were surely familiar with the apocryphal works ask the question: “MEI CHANUKAH? What is Chanukah? Chanukah was already a festival that the people were celebrating with the lighting of lights. But the rabbis were searching for a reason outside of military victory and a short-lived badly-ruled Jewish state to celebrate.
They offer various reasons. The House of Hillel argues for increasing light and holiness in the world over eight nights. The House of Shammai, knowing that the Hasmonean’s fought through Sukkot, argue for diminishing candle lights over eight days corresponding to the eight days of sacrifices through the festival of booths. It is from this same Talmudic passage that we first find the story of the pot of oil that lasted for the unexpected eight days and a reference to the miracle.
Most Chanukah customs are developed in Rabbinic Judaism as a back-and-forth negotiation between the people and the rabbis. What happened on the streets and in the homes of Jews eventually is given greater ritual meaning. The eating of oily food to recall the miracle of the oil. The playing of dreidel which has its origins in a medieval betting game is given significance by inferring that the letters on the top refer to the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (a Great Miracle Happened There). The eating of dairy food to honor Judith on Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the new month) of Tevet that occurs in the middle of Chanukah.
Chanukah is a festival that celebrates not just the religious freedom won by the Maccabees, but perhaps also, our religious freedom to create Jewish celebrations that have meaning and significance for each generation of Jews. What new customs will our generation develop that will touch the Jewish soul?