Many people think that Chanukah has a “mazal” because of the Christians. If it didn’t fall in December around Christmas time, they argue, Chanukah would never have attained such popularity. According to this view, Jews – especially in America – needed their own celebration to rival Christmas.
The strange thing is that it isn’t Chanukah but Christmas which occurs at the wrong time. It is highly debatable whether 25 December has any intrinsic connection with the birth of Jesus, and in any case the current calendar (January, February, etc.) was not in use at the time, nor did they have birth registers to record the exact date of anyone’s birth in those days.
But regardless of that consideration, the argument for Chanukah is only marginally connected with Christmas. Its origins are within Judaism and express an internal Jewish problem. What was going on was a tug-of-war between Jewish traditionalists and Hellenists, the “mit’yav’nim” who wanted to synthesise the tradition of Torah with the tents and tenets of Greek culture.
According to I Maccabees in the Apocrypha, “certain free-thinking people went out from the midst of Israel and stirred up the masses, saying, ’Let us covenant with the nations around us.’ They erected houses of entertainment in Jerusalem. They no longer circumcised their sons. They deserted the holy covenant and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of God.”
It is not that some degree of contemporary culture was altogether ruled out, but the two groups had different priorities – holiness or aesthetics, monotheism or paganism, morality or pleasure, principle or paganism.
No wonder the traditionalists said “Dayyenu!” and Mattityahu the Maccabean father cried, “Mi LaShem Elai!” – “If you are on God’s side, follow me!”
The conventional chanukiyyah shape mimics the 7-branched menorah in the Temple. More than the Magen David, the menorah is the historic emblem of Judaism.
Found on ancient Jewish tombstones, central to coinage, seals and amulets, depicted in synagogue mosaics, incorporated into the coat of arms of modern Israel, nothing rivals it as a symbol of Judaism.
The Torah gives detailed instructions as to its manufacture. Tradition says God Himself designed it. It is a sign of Jewish identity.
It represents countless principles and values of Jewish thought: light as a symbol of God and His Torah, courage as seen in the proudly upstanding central stem, coherence suggested by the outer branches leaning towards the central shaft, solidarity because both sides of the menorah (emblematic of all sectors of the Jewish people) are essential to the balance of the menorah, personal involvement because the lights will not burn unless we light them…
What a fruitful source of Jewish thinking!
Apart from the shammash, altogether 36 lights are kindled during Chanukah. The number 36 is well-known in Jewish life. It is twice “chai”, and the number of hidden tzaddikim in every generation.
According to the Midrash, 36 hours is the time that Adam was able to enjoy the light created on the first day – 12 hours on the day he was created (Friday), 12 on his first evening, and 12 on the first Shabbat until he sinned. The sin dimmed the primal light and nothing was ever so bright thereafter. Not until the righteous reach “olam ha-ba” will they enjoy the full light of creation.
In a sense Chanukah symbolises the two types of light – the lesser light of our earthly existence and the brighter light of the future. Earthly history, when the philosophies of the time have challenged the purity of Jewish ideals, has often worked against the Divine light and reduced its brightness.
Just as the assimilatory hellenistic ideology made inroads into Jewish belief and ethics, so did many later philosophies attempt to draw Jews into compromising their Jewish identity. Often they thought that becoming more like the outside world would bring them social acceptability, but it did not curb antisemitism and there were still things the world did not like about Jews. (Jews were too capitalistic or too communistic, too self-confident or too parasitical).
Fortunately, most Jews decided that Judaism was worth preserving, and the yearning for the primal flame was never quenched.
TEN WORDS FOR JOY.
Each day of Chanukah should be different – a different celebration, a different present for each child, a different song, a different D’var Torah.
The sages say that Hebrew has ten words for “joy”. Chanukah has only eight days; just as the Ushpizin custom on Sukkot gives us a different Biblical ancestor to welcome to the sukkah, so each night of Chanukah should feature a different mode of joy. Two will be left over – so let the excitement linger afterwards!
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.