When meeting with Bnei Mitzvah students for the first time I like to ask them what their favorite Jewish festival is. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that the most popular answer is Chanukah. Usually this answer is either accompanied by a sheepish look, or a big smile – both of them, in some way, because this festival is popular not because of its Jewish aspects, but because of the gift giving.
Eight nights of presents, or even the very act of giving gifts at Chanukah is a rather late innovation, in no small measure coming about as a result of another, non-Jewish, holiday at a similar time of year. Chanukah, and by extension my Bnei Mitzvah students, have a lot to thank Christmas for.
If we were to rank Jewish festivals in order of importance Chanukah would definitely not be anywhere near the top of the list. In our Torah we are commanded to observe five festivals, which therefore jump to the top of the list; these ‘Top Five Festivals’ are Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Purim probably would be next on the list, as it can trace its lineage back to the section of Ketuvim – ‘writings’ in our Bible, through Megillat Esther. And then, if we continue our rankings, it would probably be a contest between the Rabbinic festivals of Chanukah, and Tu B’Shevat for seventh place (and I would probably be inclined to give Chanukah 7th place).
But despite this lowly ranking, in an article from 2011, Time Magazine asked why Chanukah is the most celebrated Jewish holiday in America. As the article acknowledged; “Even though listed officially as a “minor” Jewish holiday, Hanukkah has turned into the most celebrated Jewish holiday in the U.S. There’s nothing minor about Hanukkah anymore.”
For us Jews living in countries where, at this time of year, Christmas is everywhere, it is unsurprising that we have clung to Chanukah as our Jewish equivalent. It offers us a Jewish celebration while everyone else seems to be celebrating Christmas. They have their tree, we have our Chanukah Menorah. They have special foods, we have latkes and doughnuts. And they have presents, and so today we too have presents.
Chanukah has come a long way from its humble beginnings – it’s the ultimate festival success story.
What is fascinating about this festival is the way that it has constantly evolved and reinvented itself to remain relevant for the generations who were celebrating it. Originally, at its core Chanukah was a celebration of the triumph of the Maccabees against the might of the Greeks, who were ruling in Jerusalem at the time. This small band of Jews came together to reclaim the city and rededicate the Temple, defeating King Antiochus and his army.
However, at a later date, when we Jews were living in Diaspora, the Rabbis became uncomfortable with a festival celebrating a revolution against the ruling power (they feared this would not be popular with the contemporary rulers they were living under). With this in mind they shifted the focus away from the military victory, concentrating instead on the miracle of the small vial of oil which allowed the Temple Menorah to keep burning for eight days, enough time for more ‘kosher’ oil to be produced.
With the rise of Zionism, Chanukah again had a resurgence as the early Zionists focused on the strength and power of the Maccabees who, against all odds, were able to reestablish a Jewish ruled state in Israel and Jerusalem. Unsurprisingly, these Maccabees provided a compelling image for the Zionists, who were drawn to these powerful fighters and what they were able to achieve. The art of this time demonstrates how the Maccabees were almost viewed as super-men for the Zionists to emulate.
And today, in America and the western world, Chanukah has become our winter, gift-giving festival.
We can’t know how future generations will relate to the festival of Chanukah, but I know that for me, Chanukah is a festival challenging me to bring light into the world. Each year I am struck by the way that through each night of the festival our Chanukah Menorah spreads more light into the room. Each night the darkness is dispelled that bit more as more candles are lit. And for me Chanukah therefore serves as the festival challenging us to bring light into the darkness, both literally and metaphorically. Just as each one of us has a different Chanukah Menorah that we light in our families, so too must each one of us find our own ways to bring our personal light into the world.