Rabbi Moshe Halfon

Rabbi Moshe Halfon

As the new spiritual leader of Mt. Sinai Congregation, I am honored to inform my new community about Hanukkah, The Festival of Light and Freedom. Many people are curious about its meaning and place in history, why it falls in December (usually), and yes, even how to spell it!

Long before Adam Sandler’s silly song, Hanukkah took its place in Western consciousness (see Handel’s opera “Judas Maccabeus.”) Until about a century ago, Hanukkah was considered a relatively minor home holiday compared with the major holy days of Passover or Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Even the Rabbis of Roman times tried to downplay it, yet it became so popular among “the common folks” that they ruled that it should become a home celebration. In our day, Hanukkah has become a widely celebrated holiday, partly due to the commercialization of Christmas. Yet very few people – Jews or Christians – know the real story behind Hanukkah, or the deeper message of this late addition to the Jewish calendar.

“Funny, you don’t look Greek”

As you may remember from seventh grade history, in around 333 Before the Common Era (BCE = BC), “Alexander the Great” of Macedon conquered the Persian Empire and unified all of the Mediterranean from Italy to Persia in a series of shrewd and mostly bloodless moves, including simply having all his generals marry into royal families! While not Greek himself, Aristotle had been his private tutor as a youth, so ol’ Alex loved anything Greek! He chose to promote and export Greek culture, language and culture on a scale which can only be compared with the worldwide influence of American products and values in our time: rock music, movies, clothes and so on. This process of imitating and promoting Greek culture is known as “Hellenism.” So, technically, this was a struggle between the Syrian “pseudo-Greeks” and Judeans.

Many of the conquered nations responded favorably to the new ideas, language, architecture – and especially money – that the conquerors brought into their subject nations. Alexander held relatively “enlightened” policies for his time, allowing native peoples to keep their unique religions – or perhaps he was just pragmatic. A Talmudic legend relates that when he “peacefully” conquered Jerusalem, he dismounted and bowed before the High Priest outside the walls of Jerusalem. No wonder “Alexander” or “Alexandra” became popular Jewish names!

Many Judeans enjoyed aspects of Greek wisdom, language and culture, but still preserved their religious life – especially dietary laws and circumcision. These two ancient civilizations shared many common features and influenced each other in law, literature, philosophy and art. Judeans continued their religious practices, but around Jerusalem, many upper-class folks began assimilating Hellenistic rituals into their lives, taking Greek names, and even weaving Greek styles into the fabric of Temple worship! Within a few generations, many priestly families in and around Jerusalem became “Hellenizers” or “pro-Hellenists.”

“Madman in the House”

When Alexander died only a few years after his conquests, his empire was mainly split between two generals with divergent world views. Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt and the West, continued Alexander’s enlightened policies, and it was there in Alexandria that the Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek (the Septuagint). Meanwhile, Seleukus and his descendants who ruled Judea, Syria and Persia from Antioch in Syria favored the typical view that conquered peoples must adopt the religion of the occupier. Military, cultural and financial problems dogged the Syrian Hellenists, who ruled over a vast territory not unlike the old Soviet Union, with dozens of ethnic and religious groups.

By 168 BCE, when Antiochus IV became the ruler of Syria, he became obsessed with raising money, unifying the kingdom – and also with his own ego! He took to calling himself “Antiochus Epiphanes” (“Divine Image”); yet as his madness grew, many mocked him as “Antiochus Epimanes” (the Madman”). In desperation, he sought help of the richer “Hellenized” Jews of Jerusalem. He appointed a Hellenized Judean named Menalaus as High Priest, ordered all Jews to cease circumcision and studying Torah, and took steps to get his hands on the Temple’s treasuries. To do so, he even turned the Holy Temple in Jerusalem into a shrine to Zeus, complete with an altar and pig sacrifices!

“Sire, the People are Revolting!”

By this point, the country was on the brink of a civil war between pro-Hellenist and anti-Hellenist Judeans, the latter mainly in the rural areas. In the town of Modin (today a small city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) an old priest named Mattityahu (Mattathias) resisted the idolatry of the Syrian-Greek culture, and staged a series of incidents. The Syrians sent a few troops, but they had other battles elsewhere in the empire, and the undersupplied troops were ill-trained to fight on the Judean “home turf.” Like the British in 1776, they suffered a series of defeats in several “guerrilla” battles led by Judah, son of Mattathias, who became known as “Maccabee – the Hammer.” While at first the more pious Judeans opposed fighting, and richer, pro-Hellenist Jews opposed these violent tactics, eventually they, too, saw the benefit of supporting the struggle and joined in.

The Talmud relates that on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev 165 (late December), the Judeans reclaimed the Temple from the Hellenized priests and rededicated it. According to a Talmudic legend, they found only one bottle of purified olive oil with the stamp of the High Priest with which to relight the Temple lamps (“Menorah”). It appeared to be only enough for one day, they thought, until more could be prepared. The word “Hanukkah” – meaning “dedication” – refers to this purification and rededication of the Temple. It is not certain that this event actually occurred, but a few centuries later, during Roman times, Rabbis decided to emphasize the “miracle” of the oil instead the military aspects of the story. They did this both to discourage violence and because they did not like the Maccabees – as we shall see below.

The Syrians had other battles around their empire, and decided to leave this little group of crazy people alone for a while. A treaty was struck, and Judah and his family were “granted” the right to rule Judea under Syrian protection for several more years. No matter: some Judeans hailed this as a victory, and these events left a mark on the people. How had such a small army defeated the mighty Syrians? Many saw this as Divine Deliverance as powerful as the earlier story of Exodus from Egypt! The story grew in the popular consciousness.

“Meet the New Boss – Same as the Old Boss”

For 102 years, the victorious Hasmonean family of Mattathias’ descendants ruled over an independent Jewish state for the first time since the Babylonian conquest of 586 BCE. Unfortunately, generals rarely make great leaders, and the Maccabees were no exception. They appointed themselves both rulers and priests, became Hellenized and corrupt themselves, and even killed some political enemies – including rabbis! They continued have conflicts with Syrians and other neighbors, until they decided to ask the Romans for assistance. Bad move! We know the rest of the story: in 63 BCE, Rome took over Judea with an oppression which made the Syrian difficulties pale by comparison.

So, in reality, the holiday we know as Hanukkah was probably not celebrated until after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. Judeans sought a safe way to remember their earlier independence, and keep the flame of resistance alive. They remembered when Judea was independent; thus, Hanukkah began as a holiday about religious freedom and national liberation. The rabbis feared that people might become too militant, fearing Roman reprisals; yet Hanukkah was already a part of the people’s consciousness. So rather than emphasize the military victory, they told the story of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, to emphasize “light” rather than “fight.” In fact, the four Books of the Maccabees were not even canonized into the Hebrew Bible, but can still be found in the Catholic and other Christian Bibles.

Many Hanukkah customs arose during the Middle Ages and modern times. Here are the origins of some well-known Hanukkah customs:

Lighting the Hanukkiah or Hanukkah Menorah: Because the Romans outlawed the seven-branched Temple candelabrum after leveling the Temple in 70 CE, people began lighting oil lamps with eight branches to recall the “miracle in the Temple.” Technically, this is called a Hanukkiah, rather than a menorah (candelabrum), but for many today, the two terms are interchangeable. The Hanukkiah is placed in the window to publicly share the message of Hanukkah. Students of Rabbi Shammai argued to light eight oil lamps and reduce by one each night, while students of Rabbi Hillel felt it was better to add a light each night. Obviously, we follow Hillel’s teaching, and add more light as the days grow darker: Light over Right, Faith over Fear.

Foods: In Medieval Europe, latkes became popular; while Middle Eastern Jews ate jelly-filled fried donuts called sufganiyot, and Spanish-Portuguese Jews eat bumuelos or sweet dumplings. All involve frying to recall the “miracle” of the oil. As tops became popular children’s toys in the Late Middle ages, Jews turned them into the dreidel with four Hebrew letters signifying “a great miracle happened there.” Thus, both of these Hanukkah customs came late. However, the custom of giving children coins (“Gelt”) that began in Medieval Poland may actually be connected to Roman times: after the Roman conquest, people would keep coins from the short-lived independent Maccabean state as a secret sign of resistance. (The Loft Candy Company invented the chocolate coins in the 1920’s).

“A little light dispels a lot of darkness”

So, the real spirit of Hanukkah goes beyond remembering a military victory of old; it is about tolerance and awareness of all people’s rights to self-determination. (Because the Jewish calendar follows lunar cycles, Hanukkah can fall anywhere from late December to late November; this year, we again had “Thanksgivukkah” as Hanukkah began on the Sunday after Thanksgiving!)

When I am asked if Hanukkah and Christmas have anything in common, I usually explain that they are quite different. Christmas is the foundational holiday of the Christian faith, while Hanukkah commemorates one among many historical events. They both fall in the winter. Hanukkah and Christmas are very different holidays, yet they do share some common themes: First, “peace on Earth and goodwill to all” must be based on acceptance of our differences. Second, if not for those crazy Maccabees, Judea might have turned all Greek, and Jesus might not have grown up in a Jewish home! Third, and perhaps most important, light is a very powerful motif in both holidays, as well as in the African American festival of Kwaanza.

It has been a custom since ancient times to light fires at the dark time of the winter solstice. So this light also symbolizes hope, freedom, truth, family warmth and the faith that “The darkest hour comes just before the dawn.”

Like our ancestors, we, too, live in a time of great uncertainty and darkness, yet with signs of hope and tolerance as well. In the spirit of diversity and community, let us rededicate ourselves to this task. Happy Hanukkah to everyone!

Moshe Halfon is the new rabbi at Mt. Sinai Synagogue. He can be contacted by email at ravhalfon@aol.com.

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