(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
‘The Festival of Lights” is different from most other Jewish festivals.
The fact that we celebrate it for eight days is exceptional, as all other Jewish festivals and holy days last one, two at most seven days. The number of lights – eight – is also a break with the traditional seven- branched menorah, which was rekindled in the Temple after the victory over the pagans – the Syrian Greeks.
We add a special prayer, “Al Hanissim” (for the miracles) at every service, whereby we thank God for the deliverance from our enemies: “Thou didst deliver the strong into the hands of the weak; the many into the hands of the few; the wicked into the hands of the righteous; and the arrogant into the hands of those who occupied themselves with Thy Torah.”
At each morning service, we relate biblical accounts of the dedication of the altar in the time of Moses, and the gifts brought by the 12 princes of Israel. We are comforted, as a small nation amid today’s sea of evil, by the words: “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).
Even though the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, it did not affect celebrating Hanukka because it is centered mainly on the home. Every evening we still kindle the lights. Children particularly love the festival, because it is often accompanied by gifts and chocolate coins (Hanukka gelt), as well as the wonderful fried foods like doughnuts and potato pancakes (latkes)... the oil commemorating the single cruse of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days.
In the 3rd century CE, after our enemies launched their fanatic persecution of the Jewish people, when kindling Hanukka lights was forbidden, as often happens the result was an awakened esteem for the rite. It became a sanctification of God’s name, with special blessings.
Light has great significance in Judaism. Even during the plague of darkness in Egypt, we are told that “all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Exodus 10:23). Although Hanukka imposes minimum religious restrictions, we are required to kindle the lights every evening, stating that this commemorates “the miracle, deliverance, deeds of powers of salvation” wrought by the Almighty at this season. We are instructed not to use the lights for any utilitarian purpose – they are only to be seen.”
We pray to be placed “on the side of light” and the mystical book of Zohar promises “a palace of light that opens only to him who occupies himself with the light of Torah.”
Why did it take the priests eight whole days to prepare more olive oil for the Temple Menorah? Kislev 25 marked the peak of the winter olive harvest season. The trees were heavy with olives filled with oil, turning from green to black – black olives contain 50% more oil than green ones. The Maccabees’ home town of Modi’in lay in the heart of the country’s richest olive-growing region.
Under these favorable conditions, they could have quickly picked the olives, prepared the oil and rushed it to the Temple in Jerusalem, just a day’s walk from Modi’in.
The explanation is that the special oil required for the Menorah was clear oil of beaten olives (Exodus 27:20). It was a two-part operation – first the beating, and then the resulting olive oil mash was piled into flat fiber baskets and weighted to squeeze out the oil. It was not extracted by pressure, but allowed to seep out drop by drop, driven by gravity and the weight of the piled-up baskets.
This special process took much longer, producing a clear oil completely free of sediment and impurities, that burned with a clear, pure flame.
The date of Hanukka even has some relationship to the pagan winter solstice holiday – “the dark month” – when the longest night of the year gives way to a gradual increase in the length of each day.
When the Greeks first desecrated the Temple, they offered sacrifices to their god Zeus on their winter solstice. Upon the Temple’s liberation, three years later, the Jews renewed their service to God on the anniversary of the same day it had been desecrated, as a gesture of defiance.
The Festival of Lights takes on special meaning at this time of darkness in Israel and the world-wide rise of anti-Semitism.
In Israel we see daily stabbings, shootings, car ramming and murder of Jews.
No matter how dark the days of intolerance and racism, Hanukka has special meaning.
The miracle is not just the supernatural one of the flask of oil. It is that beacon of light, the passion of man that transcends the momentary and the opportune.
The Hanukka lights, like the Jewish people, refuse to be extinguished.