The Festival of Hanukka celebrates two momentous and fateful victories of Judea
over Greco-Syria in the second century before the Common Era, during the period
of the Second Temple. Greco-Syria was one of three heirs to the political and
cultural hegemony of Alexander the Great, a masterful military tactician whose
goal was to spread Hellenistic culture throughout the “Fertile Crescent.”
Despite the brevity of his life, he succeeded to an amazing extent – and,
miraculously, he allowed the State of Judea to maintain its municipal and
Jewish lore records that when Alexander the Great
entered the gates of Jerusalem, the High Priest Shimon the Righteous came out to
greet him. The mighty conqueror bowed before the High Priest, exclaiming that
before every battle, in his dreams, he received a blessing for victory from the
High Priest. Hence Judea received a special dispensation and that year every
male baby born was named Alexander.
About 150 years later, prior to the
victory of Hanukka, the situation changed drastically. Greco-Syria and
Greco-Egypt were struggling for control over the Alexandrian empire and the High
Priests of Judea were becoming more and more enamored of the popular Hellenistic
culture, replete with Olympic athletic games dedicated to the idolatrous gods of
Mount Olympus and hedonistic orgies. The High Priest Menelaus wished to turn
Judea into a Greek city-state, bringing idolatrous activities right into the
heart of Jerusalem.
A civil war ensued, with the religious Hasmoneans
rebelling valiantly against the establishment
Hellenistassimilationists. When the Hasmoneans appeared close to victory,
the Hellenist rulers called Greco-Syria for help, agreeing that Judea would
become a satrap of Syria once the rebellion was quelled. Hence the Hasmoneans
were battling for both the political and religious independence of Judea. Their
military victory secured the political independence; the rededication of the
Holy Temple’s menorah – symbolizing the “candles of commandment and the light of
Torah” – expressed the renewed religious commitment of the newly formed
But if our kindling of the Hanukka menorah
represents the victory of Torah Hebraism over assimilationist Hellenism, why
does the Talmud ordain the essential lighting of the menorah to take place in
the Jewish home and not in the synagogue? The sages called the synagogue “a
miniature Holy Temple,” so would it not be more a more appropriate location for
our Hanukka celebrations?
I discovered the answer in a beautiful city in
Portugal. Among the many institutions of Ohr Torah Stone is the Joseph
and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary, which trains rabbis and sends them to
Jewish communities all over the world. Our rabbis in Portugal began asking many
questions about the Marranos, or Crypto- Jews, who are quite numerous there.
These are the descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity
during the times of the Catholic Inquisition. Now they wish to return to
their Jewish faith. What is their status? Do they require formal conversion?
visited Portugal to meet these Crypto-Jewish communities in order to assess how
to enable them to reunite with their Jewish heritage.
Rabbi Elisha Sales,
the rabbi sent by Shavei Israel (an organization dedicated to finding “lost
Jews”) to minister to the Marrano communities in the towns and villages outside
of Lisbon, introduced me to people all of whom shared a burning desire to emerge
from their repressed underground of furtive whispers into Jewish pride and
He took me to the magnificent new synagogue in Belmonte where
I joined 70 to 80 Crypto-Jews who gathered for the weekday evening prayer. Every
word was recited aloud by each participant. The cantor, a 15-yearold student of
the rabbi, led us all in the spirited singing.
They explained that four
families went underground in 1492. For 500 years, their descendants married one
another while keeping Judaism secretly. They rebuilt the synagogue; and now at
least 120 attend prayers there every Friday night and Sabbath day!
entrance-way to the sanctuary is the following inscription in Hebrew:
this place, the chain of our tradition has not been severed… As a result of
government decrees, the Jewish residents of this village, like other Jews
throughout Spain and Portugal, were forced to publicly deny their Jewish
religion. But they maintained their Judaism in their homes. Here the candle of
Jewish light was never extinguished. For a period of 500 years, from 1492 [when
the one synagogue in Belmonte was destroyed] until 2002 [when it was reopened],
in the homes of this village the Jewish commandments were secretly performed,
the tradition was transmitted from parent to child in hushed tones, the Sabbath
was sanctified in hiding while Sunday was celebrated before the eyes of the
neighbors. They made blessings over the halla and the wine and mumbled words of
Hebrew prayers in the darkness. Here the Jewish soul was never lost. Here the
Jewish soul remains forever… From the midst of the past will rise the future.
From the bleak darkness of the Middle Ages shall emerge the light of this
Hanukka celebrates the eternal Jewish spirit in the face of
assimilation. Belmonte proves that it is the Jewish home which preserves the
Jewish spirit – even in the total absence of a synagogue.
The writer is
the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and
chief rabbi of Efrat.