By Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor, D.D.
There are so many interesting challenges when considering the festival of Chanukah – the first is obvious: how do we spell it? As with all Jewish holidays and concepts, the language of our heritage is Hebrew – so the name of the holiday is actually: חנוכה. The word means “dedication” or “rededication.” To make it understandable using the English alphabet, we try to substitute English letters for the Hebrew ones – but the Hebrew alphabet has letters that represent sounds that are not part of the English language, so we must improvise. The first letter of the name of the holiday is the letter “chet” – which is a guttural sound. So, we use either “ch” or “h” (sometimes with a dot under the “h”) to indicate that it is guttural. We often see Chanukah or just Hanuka (again, as transliteration is an inexact science, sometimes we see the letter “hay” transliterated as “a” or “ah”).
When we move into a new home and attach a mezuzah to the doorpost, we call that Chanukat HaBayit – the dedication of the home. Our festival is that dedication writ large.
In the years prior to the Maccabean Revolt (167 -160 BCE), the Seleucid (Greco-Syrian) Empire imposed upon the Jews an increasingly harsher set of rules to force the Jews to assimilate into the Seleucid society. These rules regulated dress and behavior, and even had many change their names. This culminated in the Seleucids taking over the Temple, erecting Greek statuary, and thus, rendering the Temple unfit for Jewish ritual purposes. The Maccabean Revolt culminated with the Jews reclaiming the Temple – ridding it of the offensive objects, and ritually purifying the space so that it could be used again. As they entered the newly cleansed Temple, they carried large torches so that it was blazing with light – they rededicated the space (hence CHANUKAH). As this happened in the Hebrew month of Kislev, they realized that because the Temple had been unusable before, they failed to celebrate one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar: SUKKOT (The harvest festival immediately before the onset of a long and cold winter – so one hopes that the harvest is enough to last through until Spring). They celebrated the eight-day festival of Sukkot two months late. And the rabbis decreed that in future years, as a remembrance of the great military victory over the Seleucid army and the rededication of Temple, there would be an eight-day festival of light (recalling the entrance into the Temple with blazing torches).
Notice – there is no mention of a little jar of oil that lasted for eight days when it was only enough for one day. When do we first hear about the “little jar of oil”? That story was invented by the Jews living in Babylonia 700 years after the Maccabean Revolt. They understood that Jews would continue to experience political persecution – but they did not hold out hope that the Jews could assemble an army powerful enough to overcome the ruling authorities. They were afraid that if they celebrated the military victory of the Maccabees, they would encourage the people of their day to try to mount a revolt, which would only lead to their destruction. The story replaced a “military miracle” with a “spiritual miracle.” The Jews who still lived in Israel, continued to celebrate the military victory even three hundred years after the Babylonia Jews invented the little jar of oil story. So back then, Jews were divided in their opinions – and it is no different today.
Regardless of which side of the political spectrum one finds oneself within our dynamic Jewish family, we all know the true essence of the Chanukah celebration. Throughout history, one tyrant after another has tried to erase us – some have tried by conquering us through physical force and others have tried to break our spirits and force us to conform to someone else’s standards. Despite all attempts, we have survived and thrived and remained true to our identity as a Jewish people.
Chanukah is that small holiday in the midst of a majority that celebrates their reason for hope – and we find great satisfaction witnessing and helping our neighbors and friends rejoice in the event 2 millennia ago that gave them hope for salvation. We try to hold fast to our heritage and revel in our unique identity – and with each additional candle, with intensifying light, we promise our ancestors to keep our identity, faith, culture, heritage, and history alive and glowing with hope.
Many you find blessing in the Festival of Light. Happy Chanukah (or Hanuka, or Hanukkah or ….)