Star of David tree-topper_311.
(photo credit: Yourtreedition.com)
Some Christians have the idea that Hanukka is the Jewish version of Christmas.
There are Jews who think that Christmas is the Jewish version of Hanukka. Both
are quite wrong, since the two festivals are unrelated and the fact that they
occur about the same time is mere coincidence.
Christmas is an
exclusively Christian event and it probably gets the date wrong
December 25 is a pagan midwinter commemoration with no connection
to Jesus’ real date of birth. The conventional year of his birth is also
incorrect since he was born in 3 or 4 BCE.
Hanukka, with all its
universalistic message of freedom of conscience, is a Jewish event. It has its
own narrative, its own cast of characters, its own mode of
There is so much Christmas in the December air in most parts
of the world that one can understand why some Jewish families get caught up in
the hype, but the trilogy of Santa Claus, Christmas carols and holly leaves is
totally out of place for Jews. Judaism does not pay homage to Christ, and his
supposed birthday is irrelevant for Jews.
What about the idea of sharing
each other’s festivals? Mutual respect does not justify glossing over our
differences. Nor does it help to say disarmingly that Christmas is now a mostly
secular celebration dedicated to the shops. If this is what the festival has
become, the Christians should feel insulted, and Jews should not be part of the
Serious people on both sides argue that both festivals celebrate
light. True, most cultures have feasts of light. When Rev. Fred Nile started an
organization in Australia called The Festival of Light, he hijacked a name from
almost every people and faith.
The rhythm of time is central to every
civilization; the contrast of darkness and light is a major cultural symbol. The
Dead Sea Scrolls feature the conflict of the Sons of Light and the Sons of
Darkness. In Judaism the theme of light punctuates biblical literature (“God
said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light”) and is a dominant feature in
Jewish practice and prayer.
It even led to conflicts such as the
Karaite/Rabbinate controversy over whether lights should burn in a Jewish house
Since the ner tamid (the Eternal Light) symbolized the Divine
presence in the Jerusalem sanctuary, it is no wonder that the invaders of the
Temple thought they could quench Judaism by extinguishing the light, and the
victorious Maccabees adamantly answered back by making the rekindling of the ner
tamid into a priority.
According to one school of thought, Hanukka echoes
a pagan sun festival. Nonetheless it is a movable event, independent of the
solar months. Solar calendars are an eccentric feature of ancient Jewish history
with little enduring significance.
Christianity had an early doctrine of
Jesus as “Light of the World” and used the idea of the sun as an analogy, with
some of the saints regarding Jesus as the new or true sun. Associating his birth
with midwinter invited the symbolism of a new flash of light. It possibly also
reflected the Roman celebration of the unconquered sun.
There is no law
against two religions having festivals of light at the same time of the year,
but coincidence does not mean commonality.
We are two different faiths.
We celebrate for two different reasons. Still, what preserved Hanukka and made
it popular must be its proximity to Christmas. In a Christian milieu, Hanukka
was almost a cultural compensation for Jews.The writer is emeritus rabbi
of the Great Synagogue in Sydney.