Cantor’s Notes 1223
This time of year is so beautiful – a Season of Light and Joy, of Peace on Earth. Of course, those sentiments are connected to Christmas, and Chanukah’s the Jewish Christmas, right? For years, I’ve been bothered by that misconception, especially because that’s not just a belief held by many Christians, but by a lot of Jews as well. I don’t want to “Bah, Humbug” Chanukah, but I think it’s important we Jews know who we are and what we’re celebrating.
“What exactly is Chanukah?” This is the way one of the few passages in the Talmud pertaining to Chanukah begins. The answer given by our Sages focuses on the miracle of the oil, hardly mentioning what we consider the major emphasis of this holiday: the first recorded victory in the battle for religious freedom.
Here’s a brief historical review. In 167 BCE Antiochus Epiphanes, with the support of Hellenized Jews, effectively outlawed Judaism, going as far as banning circumcision and sacrificing pigs on the altar of the Temple. His actions provoked a large-scale rebellion, led by the priest Mattathias and his 5 sons. When Mattathias died, his son Judah the Maccabee took over as leader. The Apocryphal text 1Maccabees records that after 2 years of fighting, the rebellion was successful. Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. An eight-day celebration of songs and sacrifices was proclaimed upon re-dedication of the altar, but there is no mention of the miracle of the oil.
Chanukah was a popular holiday from its inception. Judah’s family, the Hasmoneans, certainly encouraged the celebration of their victory. Unfortunately, a century or so after the Maccabean victory the Hasmoneans were responsible for bringing Rome into Judea. That, along with the fact that they were kohanim (priests), who were breaking Torah law by taking over the throne, made the descendants of the Maccabees very unpopular with the Rabbis. They couldn’t ignore the holiday which was extremely popular with the masses, so they emphasized (maybe created) the miracle of the oil. Not the first (or last) time a tradition or symbol got attached to a holiday that wasn’t there at it’s origin.
Almost all other Jewish holidays are more important religiously than Chanukah, but the holiday is certainly significant. Standing up and fighting for what is right is a principle dear to the Jewish people. Indeed, the war fought by the Maccabees was for our very survival, not unlike the battles modern Israel has been forced to fight in her short lifetime. One of the primary tenants of Judaism is a love of peace – not just during one season of the year, but always. The modern State of Israel yearns for peace, while constantly being forced into war. Golda Meir expressed it so well decades ago –
“When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons. Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”
Sim Shalom, Tovah Uv’racha BaOlam
Grant Peace, Goodness and Blessing to the World!