Faith: Mai Hanukkah?

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The Talmud is compendium of Jewish questions and (sometimes) answers that were compiled over hundreds of years of oral discussion.

One of the questions it asks is: Mai Hanukkah? What is Hanukkah? For most folks Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday companion to Christmas, as they often overlap like in this year. 

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Hanukkah, however, is the historical reminder that the fight for freedom is never once and done; the forces that would see others as second-class servants never sleeps, and we must always be on guard. The battle began in 167 BCE when Greek-influenced Syrians conquered the land of Israel. Soon the people were told that they must give up their own customs and rituals, and adopt the Greek practice of idol worship. In their zeal to corrupt and defile the Temple in Jerusalem, the Syrians brought in pigs to root around this holy place in order that the people would no longer enter it. 

The Jews resisted under the leadership of the Maccabees, and for a short while they were able to achieve political independence. In this aspect Hanukkah is about a military victory. But what about the Temple? We are told that when the Maccabees returned to clean and rededicate it, they found only one single cruze of oil, not nearly enough for their needs. What were their options to be able to observe the eight days of the holiday?

When the sages in the Talmud asked, “What is Hanukkah?”, they were answering the question of where was the miracle. It wasn’t in the military victory, because it was significant but short-lived. They determined the miracle was due to the oil. On the one hand, the single cruze lasted seven times longer than thought possible. In this understanding the miracle was in the oil itself. The real miracle, however, lay in the faith of those who lit the menorah on the first day knowing that it would not last the full eight days of the holiday, and lit it anyway.

The Hanukkah menorah is called a hanukkiah, and is different than a regular menorah (lamp) in that it has eight candles, plus one that is used to light the other eight. The custom is to light the hanukkiah from right to left, lighting one candle on the first day, two on the second, and so on. Each day and each candle receives a blessing. In this way the holiday increases in light and blessings as time goes on. The custom is to celebrate Hanukkah in our homes rather than only in the synagogue, and to not do any work while the candles are burning. This includes using the candles to read by, or be the only source of light in a room. We should appreciate the flames in themselves, rather than what they might allow us to do.

Hanukkah means rededication and inspires us to renewal, resistance, and reflection. As noted by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, not only do we need to know when to pick up arms, we must also know when to put them back down. There will be times when it is necessary to fight, but it must be our spirit that is the victor or else the enemy will have succeeded if we become like them. The Maccabean victory was in their ability to fight, then stop fighting in order to clean and rededicate the Temple, and finally to relight the menorah. Victory is to be free, not to triumph. As we read in Zachariah 4:6: Not by might nor by power, but by my spirit, says God.

What is Hanukkah? This is Hanukkah: the celebration of the freedom to be who we are, to practice our customs in peace, to be a light for others, and to create a community where we may add our light to the lights others may hold. Happy Hanukkah!