Mai Hanukkah — What is Hanukkah? — the Talmud asks. Now, ages later, the need to explain seems to be greater than ever.
Hanukkah defines the holiday season for Jews. True or False?
The answer is false. What is commonly termed “the holidays” or “the holiday season” would more properly be termed the “Christian holiday season.” It is not the holiday season for Jews. If there is such a thing in Judaism, it would refer to the several week period beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ending with Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the culminating holiday of the high holiday period.
Hanukkah is only a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. True or False?
Arguably, false. While it is a post-Biblical holiday, unlike the High Holy Days and the Pilgrimage Festivals, and does not require cessation from work, all Jewish holidays are important, and it would be best not to demean any of them by referring to them as “minor.”
Gift-giving is one of the main Hanukkah traditions. True or False?
False. Gift-giving at any time of year is a wonderful way to celebrate friendship and love for others, but it is not a traditional Hanukkah activity, regardless of what retailers would like you to believe. That’s Christmas, not Hanukkah. It seems to have developed as a “minhag America,” an American custom, by Jews who may not have been very knowledgeable about Hanukkah and who came under the spell of the overwhelming influence of Christianity in America. Giving to charity, on the other hand, is very much a part of the Hanukkah tradition.
Peace and goodwill is one of the themes of Hanukkah. True or False?
False. Peace on earth and goodwill toward men are laudable, idealistic goals, and Jews yearn for their attainment all year long, not just at one time of the year — “Be among the protégés of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving one’s fellow creatures…” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). But they’re not the focus of Hanukkah.
So that’s what Hanukkah is not, but let’s get back to the question posed by the Talmud. What is Hanukkah all about?
Most readers know that Hanukkah commemorates the winning of a war waged for religious freedom. The land of Israel was ruled by the Syrian-Greeks, who had defiled the Temple, and a revolt led by the Maccabees successfully ousted them, allowing the rededication (“Hanukkah”) of the Temple. Clearly, religious freedom is important, but what is the deeper meaning of this holiday?
During the reign of the Syrian-Greeks, there was pressure on the Jews to become Hellenized, that is to say, assimilated. To be sure, Judaism does not require its adherents to become insulated from the rest of the world. Indeed, there is the concept that we can learn from everyone. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:1, Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” This understanding is implicit in the way the words of the mission of Yeshiva University, Torah Umadda, are currently understood (Torah and Secular Knowledge).
The problem is that learning from others can sometimes go too far, as when we allow ourselves to become assimilated, learning not only good things from others but also bad, while at the same time neglecting or forgetting our treasured basic values. This can lead to moral and social decay. Indeed, the story of Hanukkah teaches something that has been shown time and again, that the destruction of any civilization is more commonly the result of the decay from within than the enemy from without. When we become assimilated to the point that we lose our basic values, we become our own worst enemy.
A major theme of Hanukkah, then, is that we must try to avoid assimilation and rededicate ourselves to Jewish moral and ethical values. Indeed, that is the meaning of the word “Hanukkah” — “rededication.” Just as the Temple was restored to its former glory and sanctity, we attempt to do the same for ourselves. A clue to one way that can help us accomplish this is found in the root of the word “Hanukkah,” namely, “hinukh,” which means “education.” We need to relearn many of the things we have forgotten.
In 2014, the U.S. president attempted to draw parallels between Hanukkah and Thanksgiving and referred to the term “Thanksgivukkah” used by some. On the one hand, we have the secular holiday Thanksgiving that has lost its original meaning and has become an exercise in gluttony, its celebrants ridiculing turkeys and laughing at their plight while the president issues a “pardon” to a turkey whose only offense is trying to live its life unperturbed and unexploited (compare that with the Jewish holiday Sukkot, a harvest festival and day of thanksgiving replete with deep spiritual meaning). On the other hand, we have the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, rife with themes and teachings that seek to preserve all Jewish values, including respect for life and the right to live one’s life unencumbered by oppressors. Equating or even simply drawing a parallel between the two holidays (“As we gather with loved ones around the turkey, the menorah, or both…”) denies the way of life that Judaism is, relegating it to nothing more than a culture or ethnicity, which it is not.
May the lights of Hanukkah publicize not only the miracle but also Judaism’s life-sustaining values from which the entire world could draw meaning and derive benefit.