Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Strange History of Chanukah: Knowing, Doing, and Learning

Chanukah: Laws, Customs, and Trivia; plus,
My Personal Take on the History of this Wonderful Little Festival

By Rabbi David Mark
Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach


1. What we American Jews call a “menorah” is called a “chanukiyyah” in Israel. In modern Hebrew, a menorah is a light bulb. I wandered around B'nai B'rak, a very Chasidic town in Israel, going nuts looking for a menorah. They kept sending me to a hardware store that sold bulbs. I finally gave up and found a nice piece of broken construction tile left over from building repair at Bar-Ilan University, where I was studying in 1972. Once I melted my candles onto it, they burned and looked lovely. 

2. In which direction do we add candles on each successive night of Chanukah, and in which direction do we light them?

Facing the menorah, we add candles from right to left, but we always light the newest one first. That means: add candles from right to left, but light them from left to right. Why? Because Jews never do anything simply; we do everything complicated. What happens if you do it wrong? Absolutely nothing at all. Except you feel guilty about it. Or not. 

3. Where should the menorah be placed?

For the sake of peersoomay neesa, Aramaic for “publicizing the miracle of Chanukah,” place the menorah on a windowsill facing the street, or, if that is not practical (don’t be burning the drapes, here), place it on a table facing the door to the street. Otherwise, put it on the shelf near the backyard window, so the dogs can see it when they go outside. Put it near a window. Any window. Do the best you can. 

4. How many Maccabee brothers were there?
Five—Shimon, Elazar, Yonatan, Yochanan, and Judah (not in birth order: Yonatan was the youngest and Shimon the oldest).

5. Who was the Chanukah villain?
A Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes. He chose “Epiphanes” because it meant “half-god,” or, “the god made manifest,” and he identified himself with Zeus, king of the Greek gods. His enemies called him “Epimanes,” which means “half-maniac.” He was not really the villain of the story. The villains of the story were the Jews who aped the Greeks by mimicking Greek ways. Some of them went so far as to undergo painful operations to eradicate their circumcision marks. Then, they wrestled naked in the outdoor gymnasium the Hellenist-assimilationists had built opposite the Holy Temple, which was a great temptation for the young priests from the temple. Ouch!

6. Can you make a blessing over an electric menorah?
Under normal circumstances, no; however, if the electric menorah is all that is permitted in a hospital, nursing home, assisted living, or rehab facility (where burning candles would present a danger because oxygen is being used), one may make the blessing on it. Do the best you can.

7. Did Judah Maccabee ever eat a latke?
No: potatoes were discovered in South America centuries after Judah. Judah was too busy fighting to fry anything. He never ate a matzo ball, either.

8. Why do we Jews make such a big deal about Chanukah?

Chanukah was really not at all popular among the 1st-Century CE/AD Talmudic rabbis (who conducted a good part of their scholarship under the threat of Roman persecution), since the Maccabees, in order to fight the Syrian Greeks (or, more exactly, assimilationist Hellenistic Jews), invited into Israel the then-up-and-coming world power, the Romans. Following the conflict, the Romans refused to leave Israel. Other Maccabean sins (in the eyes of the Talmudic rabbis) included their taking up arms at all, since they were kohanim/priests, and ought to have been pacifists. Furthermore, they set themselves up as kings, which led to eventual Roman usurpation of Judean leadership (despite the Hasmonean monarchs’ managing to maintain Jewish sovereignty for about 100 years; see Howard Fast’s 1948 novel, My Glorious Brothers, while noting that Fast himself was an extreme leftist politically, as well as a secular Jew). The Books of I and II Maccabees were never accepted into the Jewish canon, because the rabbis perceived them as altogether too pro-Roman. (They remain in the Apocrypha, not accepted as holy by either the Jews or Protestants; only the Catholic Church regards them as such.)

In Europe, no one gave Chanukah presents; children received Chanukah gelt, a few coins, which they used to play dreidel (itself a medieval invention). Oh, and they cracked and ate walnuts. No big deal.

Chanukah itself never became a popular festival until the Zionist period, when Theodor Herzl and others, seeking a Jewish historical role model who was both muscular and sufficiently religious, hit upon Judah Maccabee, in an effort to get the pasty-faced, hollow-chested, shallow-breathed yeshiva bochrim (scholars) out of their study halls and into the fields, there to practice agriculture and play soccer, in order to prepare them to ascend to the nascent Jewish State, conquer the desert, and make it “blossom as the rose.”

Since World War II, particularly for American Jews, Chanukah is a relatively minor, post-biblical holiday which gained exaggerated attention because it juxtaposes a major Christian holiday. It is noteworthy that Jews from the Muslim countries made a big deal about Purim, giving their children presents on that holiday, because it juxtaposed a major Muslim festival, and the Jewish parents didn’t want their kids to feel like second-class citizens, compared to the Muslim kids. Wherever we go, we’re a minority, but that’s okay with us; we’re used to it.

Furthermore, were it not for this little holiday, there would be a lot more assimilation at this time of year. Thank God and the Maccabees for Chanukah! As for the Maccabees themselves: were they religious liberals, fighting for religious freedom? Or, were they religious conservatives, fighting to preserve the old ways? Shall we argue about it? We Jews all mold Chanukah into whatever image we require; it’s that kind of holiday.

Finally, let us consider Chanukah vs. Christmas: the villains of the Chanukah story did not want to destroy the Jews physically; they only wanted to destroy the Jewish religion. Had they succeeded and the Maccabean rebellion failed, Judaism as we know it would have vanished. And that means that, moving ahead from the Maccabee period (c.168 BCE) to when Jesus was born (4 BCE), he would have been born, not a Jew, but a Greek—and Christianity as a faith might never have begun—since all of the Apostles, except Luke, were Jewish, and, at the beginning of Christianity, you had to become Jewish before you could become a Christian.

So, perhaps our Christian neighbors owe more to our little festival than they know.

In the meantime, keep those little lights burning: they remain a sign of hope and freedom for all.

Chag Chanukah samay-ach—a very happy Chanukah to one and all!