I realized recently that I don’t know what people know or don’t know about the story of Hanukkah. Not that I blame anybody for not knowing it. I almost feel like it would be illogical for me to expect people to know stuff about my holidays, when I don’t know anything about, say, Kwanzaa. Sure, you could say Hanukkah’s older and more mainstream than Kwanzaa, but there are plenty of Muslim holidays, or “Eids,” that I know nothing about which I’m sure have been around for centuries. So, without any uppity judgment about “How dare you not know the intricacies of my cultural heritage?!?!” I’d just like to take this opportunity to share some information that folks may or may not be familiar with regarding the holiday that we Jews are celebrating this week.
I think the most widespread factoid about the origin of Hanukkah is the “miracle of the oil” in the temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C. — the story goes that there was only enough oil to keep the menorah’s fire going for one day, but instead it lasted for eight. Hence all the holiday menorahs and the candles and general pyromania, plus foods like latkes and donuts that are cooked with oil.
But of course, there’s more to it than just magic oil. Devoid of context, I’m sure you can see how that means next to nothing and is hardly reason to maintain an 8-day holiday for a couple of millennia. Sure, crazier things have happened, but seriously, there’s gotta be more. In fact, there is only one Hanukkah-specific prayer that we say this week — an insert in the Grace After Meals prayer — and it makes no mention whatsoever of the oil miracle. What’s up with that?
A lot of the importance of the miracle of the oil (the reality of which is debated from a historical point of view, but hey, what thing that happened in 165 B.C. ISN’T historically debated?) comes down to the timing of it. “Hanukkah” in Hebrew means “dedication” — the miracle ostensibly happened at the time of the rededication of the temple.
Why did the temple need to be rededicated? Because the Hellenistic Greeks had conquered Jerusalem, defiled the temple with idol worship and non-kosher animals such as pigs, and forbidden Jews to practice their religion or learn Torah. And the Jews, vastly outnumbered but led by a scrappy bunch called the Maccabees, rebelled and regained control and sovereignty over their land.
This holiday is really about the miracle of the successful war for religious freedom. It’s a political holiday. It’s a celebration of the uprising of the Maccabees and the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty — which, if it wasn’t the only successful localized uprising against the Greeks of the time, was certainly one of very few. As the insert in the Grace After Meals says, it is a holiday about how God “delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.” It’s a holiday of strength and resilience, of national and religious pride.
Just think of it as the week-long Jewish Fourth of July. Complete with lighting stuff on fire. Christmas, I think we have you beat.
Further reading: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/opinion/hanukkah-unabridged.html
Translated prayer source: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/135366/jewish/English.htm
This post was originally published last year on the Boylan Blog.