Hanukkah: Celebrating the feast of lights

“Let’s eat” is especially relevant to Hanukkah, with all manner of delicious fried foods like potato l latkes (pancakes) symbolizing the one cruse of oil that miraculously lasted eight days.

 BRING ON the oil-rich latkes. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
BRING ON the oil-rich latkes.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It is a well-known joke that all the Jewish festivals can be summarized in three sentences: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”

“They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”

All Jewish festivals in summation

Hanukkah does seem to fall into this category. The Maccabees, led initially by Mattityahu and later his son Judah, triumphed over the Greek Syrians, led by Antiochus Epiphanes. But the Jews of that time were divided into two camps – the Hellenists, who admired Greek culture; and a second group led by the brothers Maccabee, who upheld traditional Jewish values. As we know, despite the defilement of the Temple by the Greeks and the attempt to make them bow down to idols, Judaism won and survived.

“Let’s eat” is especially relevant to Hanukkah, with all manner of delicious fried foods like potato l latkes (pancakes) symbolizing the one cruse of oil that miraculously lasted eight days.

Hanukkah, perhaps Judaism’s happiest festival, takes on a special dimension in Jerusalem. At sunset, hanukkiot sit on almost every windowsill or balcony, proclaiming the miracle. As you walk along the streets, you can hear voices singing “Maoz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”) very robustly, from childish soprano to deep baritone. Visible all over Jerusalem is a giant menorah atop the Knesset, while others illuminate the tops of public buildings and water towers. In my local supermarket in Beit Hakerem, all business stops at candle-lighting time, and customers and staff kindle the lights and sing together. Everyone receives a free sufganiya – a wonderful jam-filled doughnut.

This holiday is popular with secular and religious alike. The charming candle-lighting ritual, the rich fried foods, the games with the dreidel and the gift-giving are customs in which everyone can share.

RABBI LEVI DUCHMAN lights a candle to celebrate Hanukkah, in Dubai in December. (credit: CHRISTOPHER PIKE/REUTERS)RABBI LEVI DUCHMAN lights a candle to celebrate Hanukkah, in Dubai in December. (credit: CHRISTOPHER PIKE/REUTERS)

Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?

From a historical point of view, we are celebrating the victory of the few over the many. Judah the Maccabee led a revolt against the Hellenistic Syrians who occupied the land around 165 BCE, and the Israelites were victorious. The Hanukkah miracle occurred on 25th Kislev, the day that the Greeks profaned the Temple and the Maccabees then cleansed it. 

They searched for sanctified oil to celebrate the victory for eight days, but they found only one flask with the seal of the high priest – enough to last for just one day. But miraculously, it lasted for eight days.

THE STORY of the Maccabees is not in the Bible. It is told in the Books of the Maccabees in the Apocrypha, a collection of ancient Jewish books not included in the 24 that make up the Hebrew Bible. An interesting law evolved from their struggle. During the rebellion against King Antiochus, the Jews would not fight on Shabbat. The Greek armies went into the hills on Shabbat, found where the Jews were hiding, and killed them. The Maccabees then made a new law permitting Jews to fight on Shabbat in order to save their lives. “Let us break one Shabbat now so that we may fulfill many in the future.”

The aim of the Maccabees was to preserve their Jewish identity, as Antiochus tried to force the Jews to abandon their faith and assimilate into Greek society. He ordered his generals to put to death any Jews who were found observing their laws and rituals and to force them to violate the Sabbath and bow down to Greek gods. 

Hanukkah, however, possesses broad human significance and is far more than just a Jewish national celebration. It is the first serious attempt in history to proclaim and champion the principle of religio-cultural diversity in the nation. It is a festival of liberty, celebrating the right to freedom of all peoples.

We celebrate Hanukkah as a magical potpourri of light and song, dreidels, latkes and Hanukkah ge gelt. But its miracle is not only the supernatural one of the flask of oil. It is the passion inside man which transcends the momentary and the opportune. With light as its symbol, the real miracle is that the light in the Jewish soul is never extinguished! 

The writer is the author of 14 books; her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. Her personal favorite, Esther – A Jerusalem Love Story, has just been republished in Israel by Chaim Mazo and is available on Amazon or via [email protected]