December 18, 2003
We're on the verge of Chanukah, the Festival of Dedication. Chanukah is a holiday of the "they-tried-to-kill-us, they-failed, let's-eat" variety. The basic story goes: when the Syrians took over Jerusalem, desecrated the Temple, and outlawed the practice of Judaism, a brave band of guerrillas (the Hammers, or Maccabees) fought back. Against all odds, they won. They found only one day's worth of sanctified oil left in the Temple, and knew it would take eight days to get more, but they lit the ner tamid (eternal light) anyway, and lo and behold, it burned for eight days. Ta-da! Miracle! Let's eat deep-fried foods and give gifts, as our ancestors did in days of old!
Okay, that's not exactly how the traditions happened. They're not Biblical in origin, nor even Rabbinic. Latkes (potato pancakes) and gelt (gifts of money; lit. "gold") both originated in Eastern Europe. The miracle of the oil came to be represented by frying foods in oil (potatoes were plentiful and cheap) and lighting wee oil lamps (or hollowed-out potatoes with wicks). While the latkes cooked and the oil burned, the traditional prohibition on gambling would be relaxed, and children would gamble their newfound gelt with a game of dreidl.
Sounds nice, eh? Of course, looking at this holiday with adult eyes, I see some interesting stuff we never focused on in Hebrew school. The Maccabees were fighting an occupying force which had illegalized Judaism, yes: but they were also fighting assimilation into the dominant (Hellenized) culture of their day. There's an amusing irony in this. Even for those of us who don't decorate "Chanukah bushes," in the last century we've turned a historically insignificant festival into a gift-giving bonanza not unlike a secular Christmas. Can we reconcile Christmas-style Chanukah observance with Chanukah's tale of resistance to assimilation? On another note, if this holiday celebrates the Maccabees' zeal in driving an occupying force out of their land, should it impel us to consider the zealots who today fight against occupying forces: should the holiday have a political-consciousness component?
The story's two parts are an odd match. The miracle of the oil is sweet (and makes for some excellent food traditions, from latkes to sufganiyot, Israeli jelly donuts), but it's an odd ending to the holiday's military story. Then again, some lovely drashes (exegeses) spring from the miracle of the oil: some say that the real miracle is not that the oil burned for eight days, but is rather the leap of faith of the person who decided to light it even though there wasn't enough.
Some might argue that this blog post is more intellectual consideration than this minor holiday deserves. The Days of Awe come closer to being a Jewish "holiday season" than December does. As big holidays go, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot are the original pilgrimage festivals, the ones with the deepest layers of tradition (and, arguably, the widest range of cool stuff to mine in creating contemporary observance). Chanukah's a minor festival, like Purim only without the costumes, noisemakers, and drinking.
That said, it's still a fun time to exchange gifts. There's nothing inherently gifty about Chanukah (nor about Christmas, for that matter), but it's fun to trade gifts in midwinter. And it feels good to light candles when the days are short and dark. If you're inclined towards contemplative practice, it's easy to link the lighting of the chanukiyyah with prayers or intentions to bring holiness and light into the world. If the military/anti-assimilationist narrative turns you off, focus on the allegorical part of the story, on rededicating yourself to holiness as the Maccabees rededicated the Temple. And eat latkes, regardless, because they're tasty.
As a Chanukah gift to you all, I present Hilchos Xmas, an exploration of what the Halakhah of Christmas might be if it were a Jewish holiday. Chag sameach: happy holiday!