Chanukah (pronounced Ḥanukah, but has a million different spellings, and I’ve always preferred Chanukah) is the most famous of Jewish holidays. But it is actually a minor rabbinical holiday, of less importance than most of the other Jewish holidays. So why is it so well-known, you wonder?
One word: Christmas.
Many cultures have a holiday around the time of year. Skeptics would say this is a remnant of ancient pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. I would say, there is something about this time of year that people are drawn to. When the darkness is greatest, we are most compelled to search for the light.
So what is the darkness that the Jews encountered that compelled us to find the light of Chanukah?
You have probably heard the story before, so I’ll be brief: the story of Chanukah goes that during the Hellenistic period, the Greek ruler over Judea made laws that were increasingly anti-Jewish and oppressive, banning circumcision and kosher slaughter, institutionalizing idol worship, and defiling the Holy Temple. A motley band of Jewish fighters–the Maccabees–rebelled against the Greeks, and in a series of miraculous battles, won back Jewish sovereignty over the land and over Jerusalem, and were able to restore the Temple and rededicate it to the service of God. (The word Chanukah, חנוכה, means “dedication.”) But, the story goes, there was one problem: when searching for pure oil to use to light the Menorah, the seven-branched candelabra that burned constantly in the Temple, they were only able to find one small bottle—enough oil to burn for one day. It would take eight days to acquire a new supply of pure oil. The miracle of Chanukah is that after they lit the Menorah, expecting it to go out after one day… it burned, and burned, and burned, for all eight days. That is why we light the nine-branched chanukiyah for Chanukah—one candle for each day, and one with which to light the others. We start with one candle on the first day, and add a candle every night until there are eight.
On the surface, we’ve got a nice “David and Goliath” style story here of an unlikely military victory, plus a nice little miracle that has to do with a lamp. But what is the real light here, and what is the real darkness? Is the darkness the oppression of the Greeks, and the light, the light of the Menorah in the Temple? Or is there something else to this story?
Let’s zoom in a little on the period before the Maccabees. If you were picturing the Jews looking on in horror while the Greeks went about their hedonistic shenanigans, think again. As you full well know, Greek culture was not just about oppressing Jews—it was an incredibly powerful and advanced culture, with superior science, philosophy and technology, and there was a lot that was attractive about it. Western culture as we know it today is built on the marriage between the Greek culture and Judeo-Christian values. And Jews have always liked to be on top of the latest and greatest progress in the world. So many, many Jews embraced the Greek culture and adopted it as their own—and began to shed their Jewishness. They agreed with the Greeks who scorned Judaism as being primitive, backwards and irrelevant. It was time to move forward in the world and become part of real progress, instead of clinging to their tragic past and the covenant with God that their forefathers had broken.
Does this sound familiar in any way…?
If I asked you what the greatest danger to Judaism is and has been throughout history, you might answer oppression, hatred, and antisemitism. I beg to differ. The greatest danger to Judaism is assimilation.
Assimilation means losing sight of what it is that makes us special. It means losing sight of our purpose, our essence, our unique contribution to the world. It means allowing our unique voice to be swallowed up into the cacophony and confusion of humanity’s global conversation. Assimilation is darkness.
God said, “Let there be light.”
We believe that God created humans to elevate the world to a higher spiritual place. And we believe that God chose us as a nation to guide our fellow humans to that place. To be a “light unto the nations.”
See where I’m going with this?
The real darkness in the story of Chanukah was not the external force of the Greeks’ oppression; the real darkness was doubt. Doubt that our identity, our message, our traditions had anything to say to the Greeks, doubt that they had importance in the grand scheme of things. And the light was more than just the Menorah that quietly burned eight times as long as it should have. The light was the essence of the Jewish people, which has survived a hundred times as long as it should have, which has refused to be extinguished despite the sound and fury of hundreds of cultures that swept the world, only to fade over time. But our light never faded. It burned, and burned, and burned. And in the midst of it all, the Torah is the “candle for our feet, the light to our path” (to slightly paraphrase Psalms 119:105), whispering in our ears the truth that God spoke to us at Mount Sinai. The Torah is the pillar of fire that continues to lead us through the desert to the Promised Land.
And as more and more Jews see no reason to hold on to the faith of their ancestors, and their children and grandchildren lose all connection to that past, it is more important than ever to emphasize this message of Chanukah. There is something special about you and the people you come from. Something that God gave you, making you who you are and giving you the unique mission only you can complete. That is your light. Own it.
“I admire other civilisations and traditions, and believe each has brought something special into the world, Aval zeh shelanu, ‘but this is ours.’ This is my people, my heritage, my faith. In our uniqueness lies our universality. Through being what we alone are, we give to humanity what only we can give.”
On that note… I wish you a holiday, and indeed a life, full of light, full of the truth within you. And I pray that you will never be afraid to own your light, and let it shine on everyone around you.
Before I proceed to today’s post I would like to bring your attention to my guest appearance on yesterday’s episode of Jewish Geography, a new podcast created by my dear husband. 😉 He knew I had a draft of Sunday’s post sitting around, but that I was hesitant to post it because I knew it would be controversial and widely shared and… you know I have an aversion to opening cans of worms 😛 (I was right, too. 😉 ) But he was making a podcast about Jewish sexuality and encouraged me to finish and post it so I could read an excerpt for him. So I did!
Check it out, enjoy his deep, soothing voice, subscribe (it’s on iTunes), leave him a 5-star rating and a gushing review, hire him for your next tour to Israel, etc. 😛
And now… back to our regularly scheduled programming.
“Holiday season” in the USA is in December, and the houses, streets and storefronts start to put up their Christmas decorations right after Thanksgiving (if not before). I remember what it felt like to be a little Jewish girl amongst all the tinsel, holly, lights, trees, carols, and Nativity scenes. In a word: uncomfortable.
One of the great things about moving to Israel was that come December, there was little to no evidence of the existence of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful holiday with a lot of lovely traditions… but it’s not mine, and there was something liberating about not having it blaring at me from every radio, street corner, and display window. The acknowledgement we get in a generic “happy holidays” greeting or a symbolic menorah here or there is a nice gesture, but honestly, for me, it just emphasizes our minority status.
Galus, as we say in Yiddish. (Yiddishized Hebrew for “Diaspora.”)
The fact is that Chanukah is not that important a holiday as Jewish holidays go. It is well known among non-Jews just because of its timing. Our real “holiday season” is September-October with all the Tishrei madness (Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot, and Shmini Atzeret). Still, there’s something very charming about a winter holiday, and Chanukah is a very sweet one as holidays go. I’ll be elaborating on Chanukah itself in a later post; today I want to write about the Israeli answers to all the holly, trees, candy canes… and these things.
These are the fancy-shmancy filled doughnuts, a.k.a. sufganiyot, of the Roladin bakery chain. Roladin is renowned for its “gourmet” sufganiyot. As I told you when we were at the Roladin on Mamilla last year, I personally think they’re overrated and overpriced. But you tried one, so you can be the judge of that.
In any case, the traditional filling is strawberry jam, but chocolate and caramel are also common.
These things start to appear in bakeries and supermarkets shortly after Succot (on par with the obscenely early Christmas decorations in the USA). The miracle in the Chanukah story involved oil, and we have traditionally used this as an excuse to consume food containing liberal amounts of the stuff. Sufganiyot are deep-fried, so they make the cut. The traditional Ashkenazi food is latkes, fried potato pancakes, with applesauce and/or sour cream, but those are best served crispy and fresh from the pan and most people prefer to make them at home.
2) Chanukah Accoutrement
The second thing to appear in the stores is, of course, the equipment required for Chanukah.
Remember when we were in that store where you bought your mezuza case, and you spotted these things (I think they may actually have been literally identical to the ones in this picture), and asked me what they were? And I was so out of practice, and so much less articulate in speech than I am in writing, that I was just like, “It’s… a thing… and you spin it… and you put in… and it…”
These are called “dreidels” in Yiddish or “sevivonim” in Hebrew, and they have become associated with Chanukah in a rather roundabout fashion. What we are told as kids is that Jews would study Torah in hiding, in defiance of the Romans (under whom it was illegal), and they had a kid stand watch, and when the kid would warn them that the Roman officials were coming, they would take out these little spinning tops, pretending to have been playing with them all along. Cute story; probably not true. (Though I absolutely 100% believe the studying Torah in hiding in defiance of the Romans part. See item #4 of “The 5 Secrets of Israeli Resilience Against Terror”…) They also tell us that the Hebrew letters on each side of the dreidel stand for Nes Gadol Haya Sham–“a great miracle happened there”–or, in Israel, Nes Gadol Haya Po–“a great miracle happened here.” Also cute… also not true. (I’m probably ruining all my Jewish readers’ childhoods here… sorry!)
The inconvenient truth is that the dreidel probably does not have a Jewish source at all. In this article, Rabbi David Golonkin explains that there was a game involving spinning tops that was popular in England around Christmastime, that was referenced in the 16th century under the name “totum,” which means “all” in Latin. The top had four sides with four letters: T (“take all”), H (“half”), P (“put in”), and N (“nothing”). The four letters on the dreidel are the Yiddish equivalent: Nun (“nichts”=”nothing”), gimmel (“ganz”=”all”), heh (“halb”=”half”), and shin (“stell ein”=”put in”). It has exactly the same rules as the totum game. You start out with a certain number of coins or candies or something, and each player spins the top in turn, and then must follow its instructions. If you spin a nun, nothing happens. If you spin a gimmel, you take everything in the pile in the middle. If you spin a heh, you get half of what’s in the pile. If you spin a shin, you have to put some of your objects in the middle.
So why is there a peh instead of a shin on the Israeli dreidels? Probably a Zionist invention based on the traditional explanation of the significance of the letters. The early Zionists were really into Chanukah because it emphasizes the image of the strong Jew protecting himself that they wanted to promote. They probably brought their dreidels with them and said, “Hey, nes gadol haya sham? I don’t think so! Nes gadol haya po!”
It’s not entirely impossible that there was a game like this back in the days of the Greeks and/or Romans and that the Jews did, in fact, pretend to be gambling with it as a cover story to hide what they were actually gathered to do. But it’s more likely that it was a later development, and I see no reason to suspend disbelief on this…
I bet I could make some profound metaphor about spinning and being dizzy and what it means to be Jewish or something, but… I’ll spare you. 😛
4) Chocolate Coins
If you’re gonna play dreidel, you need something to bet with, right?
That’s “gelt,” not “guilt.” There was a tradition on Chanukah to give children a little money (“gelt” in Yiddish) as a gift. (Gifts were not a Chanukah thing until our kids started getting jealous of the Christian kids with their Santa Clauses and their Christmas trees and their caga-tiós. 😛 ) So chocolate coins became a popular Chanukah treat.
Now I know this is not unique to Chanukah among winter holidays, but in our defense, Chanukah has always been known as the “Festival of Lights,” given that candles and flames are an essential part of the Chanukah story. So yes, you will find the street lamps decorated with lights, usually in blue and white.
6) Chanukah Parody Music Videos
Obviously this is a very recent phenomenon, and I believe it was started by the Maccabeats. They were an a cappella group from Yeshiva University (now they are still an a cappella group, but they’ve graduated) who made a silly video for their Chanukah parody song, “Candlelight,” and released it in time for Chanukah in 2010. The video went viral, and ever since, they as well as other Jewish musicians and a cappella groups seem to have made a tradition of releasing music videos for songs with Chanukah-oriented lyrics–some parodies, some original–around this time of year. The trend has also extended to other holidays, especially Passover, but Chanukah usually sees the most action on this front.
Last year, there were two parodies of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” (this is the better of the two) and one of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” (“All About That Neis“). This year’s offerings include a Maccabeats parody of Walk the Moon’s super catchy “Shut Up and Dance with Me” called “Latke Recipe” (which I thought was pretty cute), “A One Direction Hannukah” parody mash-up by a collaboration of Jewish performers (I’m not a big fan of One Direction, but I loved what they did with “Story of My Life”), and Six13’s parody of Silentó’s “Watch Me” (a song I personally can’t stand, but never mind).
7) Preschool Chanukah Parties
If I were Catholic, this is where I would cross myself. 😛
This is one of those things about Israeli culture I have never learned to appreciate. It’s not that other Jews around the world don’t have Chanukah parties. It’s just that the way it’s done here is so… strangely ritualistic. Every preschool hosts two important parties during the year: the Chanukah party, and the graduation party. The content of the party varies from school to school, but there are two elements that are common to all of them: they involve some kind of performance on the part of the children; and they involve food–starring the ubiquitous sufganiya. There are certain activities I have seen at almost every preschool, such as the “giant cardboard dreidel descending from the ceiling and opening up to reveal treats for all the kids” thing. (It’s like a piñata without the violence, I guess?)
The parties tend to be noisy and crowded and overstimulating in a serious way. Most Israeli parents absolutely love them and look forward to watching their little darlings wear paper hats and twirl around with streamers and flashlights and whatnot.
I. hate. them.
I mean dude, you know my kids are awesome and highly entertaining, but I would much rather watch them build a block tower or roll around on their gym balls in my living room than watch them stand there looking bewildered as the teacher herds them into some formation. And dear God, the noise. Not “highly sensitive person” territory in the slightest. Still, I suck it up and go, because apparently, to stay home would be no less than to deprive my children of a normal Israeli childhood.
Well, at least there’s food at the end. 😛
In defense of R2’s preschool, his party was on Monday and they kept it really low-key and relaxed, with only one vaguely performance-y dance thing. And also, they get The Good Sufganiyot from our local bakery. 😀 (A “good sufganiya” is not overly greasy and contains actual strawberry jam, as opposed to that artificially flavored crimson gelatinous excuse for a doughnut filling they use in the generic, cheap ones they usually hand out at such events.) R1’s party is on Thursday and I am less optimistic on the low-key-ness front, but he’s in the older class in the same preschool as R2, so The Good Sufganiyot will be available as compensation. 😉
Also, one thing I love about their preschool is the way they tell the children the story of Chanukah, focusing primarily on the Holy Temple and the Maccabees’ aspiration to redeem and rededicate it, as opposed to their fight against the Greeks. It’s a subtle distinction, but I appreciate it.
…Yes, it is no coincidence that four out of the seven items I listed here involve food. Chanukah is another one of those Jewish holidays that follows the classic formula: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!
So nu, Josep, are we finally going to merit a picture of your chanukiyah lit up this year?! 😉 First candle at nightfall on Sunday!
So as you have probably noticed by now, Jews have a thing for candles. I think the photo I sent you on Friday demonstrates this pretty well:
That’s four menorahs (one for each family member above the age of three) all set up for the fourth night of Chanukah, with the Shabbat candles in the middle. Five for me, and one each for the kids over age three. 27 candles altogether, and we were only halfway through Chanukah! (And also some dirty dishes. We don’t talk about those.)
Well the truth is that most religions have a bit of a thing for candles. Fire is very ethereal, sort of on the borderline between material and spiritual, so it makes sense for it to be a spiritual symbol. In Judaism, the flame symbolizes the soul, because just like the soul, it always rises upwards no matter which way you turn it.
In this letter, I will talk about the different kinds of candles we light in Jewish tradition and describe how and when they are lit.
But first, let’s make an important distinction:
Menorah vs. Chanukiya
In English, both of these words generally refer to the nine-branched candelabras pictured above, which are lit during the Chanukah holiday. But in Hebrew, those are only called chanukiyot. The menorah, on the other hand, is this:
This is the seven-branched candelabra that was one of the holy vessels in the Temple–the one the famed small jar of oil kept alight for eight days during the miracle of Chanukah. It is also the original symbol of Judaism, long before the six-pointed star became associated with Jews. Its central lamp remained lit at all times, and today, in many synagogues, you will find an “eternal lamp”, a ner tamid, in commemoration of that lamp. (Nowadays it is electric. Fire hazards, and all.)
So I assume you remember the story of Chanukah. (If not, here’s a refresher.) The chanukiya has nine branches–one for each night of Chanukah, plus a “helper” candle, the shammash, which we use to light the others. We add one candle for every night, and light the newest candle first, moving left to right. As I mentioned, the Ashkenazi custom is for each family member to have his or her own chanukiya. In Sephardi tradition, one person lights for the whole household.
You’ll notice that two of our chanukiyot have little glass cups filled with oil, and two of them have wax candles. Both are perfectly acceptable, but olive oil is halakhically preferred, for reasons I assume you can imagine.
The Shabbat Candles
Lighting Shabbat candles is one of the most well-known and faithfully kept Jewish traditions. Jews have gone to great lengths to light these candles–as in the classic image of the converso lighting Shabbat candles in the basement or a closet. 😉
Strangely enough, in terms of hierarchy in Jewish law, they are actually not among the most important commandments–not by a long shot. Though keeping Shabbat is a Biblical commandment of utmost importance, lighting the candles isn’t. It was instituted by the rabbis, and the reason given is shlom bayit–peace in one’s home (the halakhic concept referring to harmony at home, particularly between husband and wife). What do candles have to do with familial harmony? Well… it’s kind of hard to be nice to each other when you can’t see each other!
Yup. The Shabbat candles were instituted to prevent people from bumping into each other in the dark. How’s that for anticlimactic.
On a higher level, of course, they have become a symbol of harmony in the home and an inseparable part of the ceremony of bringing in Shabbat.
Traditionally, two candles are lit, corresponding to the two slightly different versions of the Fourth Commandment in the Torah. (That’s, uh, the Third Commandment for you. Catholics and Jews count differently.) The Bible gives two separate accounts of the Ten Commandments, almost identical, but not quite. In Exodus 20:8, it says: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy…” and in Deuteronomy 5:12 it says, “Keep the Sabbath day holy…” The word for remember, zachor, and for keep, shamor, are believed in Jewish tradition to have been said simultaneously, “within one word”, at Mount Sinai. The candles correspond to zachor and shamor.
So why do I have seven Sabbath candles in the above picture?
It is a Hassidic custom to light an extra candle for every child in the household, symbolizing the light each child brings into our lives. My mother adopted this custom when she began lighting Sabbath candles, so I continue her custom. I have three children, so that makes five. The other two are for H and R1 to light themselves. Both men and women are obligated to have Shabbat candles lit, but in most households the woman performs this commandment for the family. Nonetheless, we educate our sons as well as our daughters to light the candles. H and R1 are above the “age of education”, age three, so they both light candles.
And, you know, we try to begin cultivating Jewish pyromania fire safety habits as early as possible.
(You’ll notice, though, from the above picture, that Shabbat candlesticks traditionally come in sets of two. 😉 Now that you know that the menorah is only lit on Chanukah, you’ll just have to come back here and get yourself a pair of Shabbat candlesticks as well. You know, to light in the closet, in the tradition of your ancestors. 😛 )
The Havdalah Candle
So you thought we only light candles to mark the beginning of the Sabbath, did you? Nope! We light one at the end of the Sabbath too–but it has to be a special candle with multiple wicks, like this one:
Havdalah, meaning “differentiation”, is the ceremony for closing the Sabbath and beginning the new week. The Havdalah candle symbolizes our “return to work”. While a single flame symbolizes the soul, fire is an expression of industry, of man’s mastery over nature. After handing the world back over to God for one day–which is the essence of Shabbat–we are stepping back up to the plate in our mission to join Him in creating and perfecting the world.
The Memorial Candle
There is one more candle built into Jewish tradition, and that is the memorial candle:
These are the candles we light to commemorate the dead. Traditionally we light a candle that will burn for 24 hours starting at sundown on the anniversary of a family member’s death. In Yiddish we call it a yahrtzeit candle, yahrtzeit meaning “anniversary”. In Hebrew it’s a ner neshama, a “soul candle”. Their use has extended to commemorating the dead in other contexts. If you ever visit the death camps in Poland and Germany, you’ll find lots of these candles at various monuments. And during public mourning vigils, like those held for the three teens this summer, lighting candles is how we express our sense of loss.
Well. That would be a depressing note on which to end this letter, so here, have last night’s chanukiya.
Happy Chanukah, and Bon Nadal to you and yours!
P.S. I hate to say this, my friend, but “Bon Nadal” just doesn’t have the ring to it that “Merry Christmas” does. I would say that even “Feliz Navidad” sounds better, but then you might hit me over the head with your Caga tió.
Blog readers: Did I miss anything? What meaning does lighting candles hold for you?