Q. The Maccabean victory which gave rise to Chanukah did not endure: the freedom it achieved lasted less than a century. So why should later generations regard the event as worth celebrating?
A. The sages recognised the problem when they asked the question, “Mai Chanukah?” – “What is Chanukah?” (Talmud Shabbat 21b).
A strange question when everybody already knew the answer. But their explanation is important both for what it says and what it does not say.
They said that when the Greeks entered the Temple and defiled the oil, the Hasmoneans succeeded in finding only one cruse of undefiled oil. A miracle occurred, and the oil in the cruse burned for eight days.
What the rabbinic explanation does not say is that nationalism had triumphed, freedom had been regained and political goals had been achieved.
No-one needed to tell the rabbis that these were the facts of life, but neither did anyone need to remind them that the victory was not permanent.
What the rabbis were asking was,
“What is the significance of Chanukah in every set of circumstances?”
And their answer was to emphasise the miraculous power of faith and hope.
The Maccabees could have said,
“There is not enough pure oil to rekindle the light; it is not worth trying!”
What they did was to take what little they had, and to have faith that God would support their efforts.
A paradigm of Jewish history: sometimes we lacked physical freedom, but our spiritual and cultural freedom were unbounded.
Today there is a new challenge. Almost every Jew in the world lives in conditions of physical freedom. We have to ensure that we do not allow our spiritual and cultural freedom to diminish because of complacency or indolence.
However little we sometimes have to build on, we have to have faith that we will succeed.
PUBLIC OR PRIVATE LIGHTING?
Q. Which is better – to kindle the Chanukah lights publicly or privately?
A. Both are important.
There is a custom of kindling the lights at the doorway, which makes it both a public event for the street and a private event for the family.
Since the purpose of kindling the menorah is “pirsum ha-nes”, publicising the miracle, this ideal is fulfilled in two ways at once.
For the public, it expresses freedom to believe (or not to believe, since freedom of both religion and irreligion are both axiomatic).
For the family, it marks the priority of family and home as the center of Jewish living.
Public kindling of the chanukiyyah has become popular in recent years due to Chabad-Lubavitch. These ceremonies generally take place in city locations and attract large crowds of Jews and non-Jews, with public figures in attendance.
ROSH CHODESH & THE GREEKS.
There is a tradition that amongst the ways the Greeks attacked Judaism was to seek to eradicate “Kiddush HaChodesh”, the determination of the new moon.
Looked at in isolation it seems a strange mitzvah to oppose.
To target Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur or Pesach, to attempt to abolish Shabbat and kashrut – this might have been the more obvious way to go. But “Kiddush HaChodesh”? Surely one of the least essential Jewish practices!
The Greeks knew what they were doing. It always seems to happen with antisemites that the aspect of Judaism they ridicule and attack is unfortunately well chosen.
“Kiddush HaChodesh” is an example. It is a practice on which hangs the whole of the Jewish calendar and hence the whole pattern of Jewish observance.
Jews who lose touch with the calendar lose their Judaism. A life without Jewish events loses Jewish identity.
Hirsch put it positively: “The catechism of the Jew,” he said, “consists of his calendar”.
The dates a Jew holds sacred show you what that Jew believes in. Rosh HaShanah means the belief in creation and a Creator. Yom Kippur means personal responsibility for one’s deeds. Sukkot is Divine protection. Pesach is freedom for every human being. Shavu’ot is moral law.
Without the calendar there is no Judaism.