Hanukkah: history, meaning and its relevance today

Every single flame on every hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) is a small victory, a reminder of the triumph of good over evil throughout history.

A GLASER family Hanukkah: Let us light double ‘chai (photo credit: SAM GLASERY)
A GLASER family Hanukkah: Let us light double ‘chai
(photo credit: SAM GLASERY)
For eight nights, starting with the 25th of the month of Kislev, Jews celebrate the 165 BCE victory of the Maccabees, a brave troop of priest-warriors that vanquished the mighty Syrian-Greeks. Every winter, we commemorate this military miracle by lighting the Hanukkah candles, increasing the glow of spirituality in the world and saluting those who keep the dream of freedom alive.
Interestingly, the Torah portions we read at this time of the year also highlight dreamers – we learn about the visions of our patriarch Yaakov and his son Yosef, followed by Pharaoh’s butler and baker and then Pharaoh himself. The resounding theme of the power of dreams offers us hope amid darkness, echoing the prophet Zecharia’s motto, “Not by might but by spirit” shall we all live in peace.
Every single flame on every hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) is a small victory, a reminder of the triumph of good over evil throughout history. This holiday recalls those dreamers, from biblical times to the present, who were committed to the transformation of a barbaric world into one of liberty and justice for all. Moreover, we are reassured of the efficacy of the secret weapon in our arsenal, the power of dreams.
Jewish survival requires toughness and fortitude, an indefatigable resolve to advocate for liberty and self-expression. As a once-enslaved people, we instinctively rally against injustice inflicted on any group. Hanukkah further refines the Passover message of freedom, emphasizing that bondage can also be spiritual. Our endurance is predicated upon our ability to learn God’s word, to remain separate, to worship as we choose.
The Greeks prohibited the three things they perceived crucial to maintaining the Jewish covenantal claim: observing Shabbat, commemorating Rosh Hodesh (the New Moon) and circumcision. Of course, these fundamental mitzvot are not optional for the sustained joy of Judaism, and the Maccabees were compelled to take up arms.
As we know, the loss of enthusiasm for these Jewish non-negotiables can smother our spark just as readily as the threat of physical annihilation. Hanukkah reminds us to “Keep the Dream Alive” in spite of tribulations we face. During the week of Hanukkah, we can reflect on ALL injustices suffered by ALL people, feeling a sense of unity with those afflicted throughout history and today.

THE STANDARD box of Hanukkah candles contains 44 candles. We light “double chai” (36) over the eight nights to fulfill the mitzvah. Perhaps this represents chai (life) for the Jews and another chai for our dream of peace for all nations. The eight leftover candles in the box serve as the shamash (servant/aide) for each night.
Why? We light the shamash first, make the bracha (blessing) and then use it to light the others, one the first night, two the second, and so on. But more than just igniting the others, the shamash serves an important function. Halacha (Jewish law) dictates that we can’t use the Hanukkah lights for practical purposes like reading or working. These lights are purely spiritual and are solely for our metaphysical enjoyment.
If we read by the light of the hanukkiah, it’s the shamash’s light we’re using. That’s how holy and special the main lights are! So don’t light and run. Avoid the urge to rush into presents, dreidle-spinning and a latke feast. Sit and enjoy the candles. Take a deep breath, relax, converse with family and friends, or just sit alone and ponder the simple everyday gifts we get from our creator. Most importantly, use the holy moments to rekindle your own dreams.
Hanukkah is the time to remember that the battle of the Maccabees must be fought in every generation. Like Yaakov and Yosef, whose stories illuminate this season, we must reclaim our connection with the dreams of our people, but not at the expense of our connection with all of humanity.
We will continue to fight for a distinct Jewish identity while making this world a better place for all people and all nations. Let us realize Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of a “day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing together with the words of the old folk song, “Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we are free at last.”
The writer is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He was named one of the top-10 American Jewish artists by Moment magazine, has sung ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Dodger Stadium and Staples Center, and has won John Lennon and Parent’s Choice awards. www.samglaser.com