Reflections: What is Hanukka?

At its deepest Hanukka reminds us that it our task as human beings to kindle lights in the darkness, to create good where there is evil.

A young boy lights a hanukkia in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A young boy lights a hanukkia in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood
What exactly is it that we celebrate during Hanukka? Is it the rededication of the purified Temple? That is what the very word “Hanukka” – dedication – implies, as reported in the Books of Maccabees.
Is it the miracle of the oil? That is what the Talmud says.
Is it the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks? That is what the prayer “For the miracles…” relates.
Is it the celebration of light at the time of darkness? That is what the prayer “These lights...” and the regulations for kindling the hanukkia imply.
Or maybe, is it all of these together? Hanukka is considered a minor festival.
It originated not only after the time of the Torah, but even after the entire Bible. Unlike Purim, it has no biblical book recounting its story. Furthermore, it has no prohibitions of work.
Yet somehow, over the centuries it has taken on increased importance, and has come to be celebrated with great pomp and circumstance.
For example, consider the way the early rabbis described the lighting of the hanukkia. The mitzva of Hanukka is one light for an individual and his entire household. The zealous kindle a light for each member of the household, and the extremely zealous light eight on the first day and reduce them thereafter, according to Beit Shammai; while according to Beit Hillel, the extremely zealous light one on the first day and progressively increase them (Shabbat 21b).
Yet today, one light is certainly not sufficient; on the contrary, everyone practices what was once reserved only for the extremely observant. We have all become mehadrin min hamehadrin (most stringent).
Of course, in the Western world, the fact that Hanukka is celebrated in close proximity to Christmas has helped build up its importance. It serves to give the Jewish community its own reason to celebrate at a time when all others are celebrating, and helps Jewish families resist the temptation to bring Christmas into their homes, providing their children with a substitute for Santa. And thanks to Chabad, lighting huge hanukkiot in public places throughout the world has become an accepted practice.
Since the story of the miraculous oil is not found in the historical Books of Maccabees and appears for the first time only in the Talmud, in response to the strange question “What is Hanukka,” it seems obvious the Sages were looking for something more than the story of the Maccabees’ victories to explain the custom of lighting so many lights for eight days.
The emphasis on the story of the cruse of oil and the miracle may have started as an explanation for the meaning of the word “miracles” in the phrase “For the miracles.” This was especially essential at a time when Jews were less impressed by the Hasmonean dynasty, which had proven less than saintly. This was one way of shifting the emphasis from them to something that could be seen as a supernatural event attributable to God alone.
Modern secular Zionism, of course, took the opposite approach, as demonstrated by the popular song, “Who can recall the heroic deeds of Israel,” rather than “… the heroic deeds of the Lord.”
Judah the Maccabee became the symbol of the modern Hebrew warrior.
There is a very interesting midrash concerning the origins of ancient pagan and Roman holidays Calenda and Saturnalia, celebrated yearly at this season, which may also shed light on the origins of the Festival of Lights.
When primal Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, “Woe is me. Perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is becoming darker and returning to the state of chaos and confusion. This, then, is the ‘death’ to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!” He then began keeping an eight-day fast. But as he observed the winter solstice and noted the days growing increasingly longer, he said, “This is simply the natural course of the world,” switching instead to eight days of festival.
In the following year, he appointed both periods as festivals; he decreed them for the sake of Heaven, but the nations appointed them for the sake of idolatry (Avoda Zara 8a).
It certainly seems highly unlikely that it is a mere coincidence that pagans, Christians and Jews all place an emphasis on lighting lights at the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere.
Once my wife and I spent Hanukka in Ushuaia, at the very southern tip of Argentina. At that time of year there is no darkness there at all, no sunset, no stars seen in the heavens. We waited and waited and finally lit our hanukkia at the latest possible time, but it seemed totally useless as there was no darkness for the lights to illuminate. I realized then how central to the festival was the fact that it took place at the peak of winter darkness, and the important role it played in serving to illuminate what would otherwise be a very gloomy and depressing time of year.
As the midrash implied, lighting lights at the winter equinox may well have begun as a magical way of inducing the sun to return to its full strength, but soon became a human response to the darkness, bringing light and joy into human hearts, be they pagan, Christian or Jew. Furthermore, light itself is a symbol of hope and of goodness, as opposed to darkness, which stands for evil.
At its deepest level, then, Hanukka reminds us that it is our task as human beings to kindle lights in the darkness, to create good where there is evil, to combat whatever brings pain and suffering to the world by our deeds of human kindness.
Hag urim sameah – a joyous Festival of Lights! 
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a twotime winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).