December 22, 2011

Hanukkah: first victory for freedom of worship

Hanukkiot in the window of Judith and Jeff Green's
home in
Jerusalem's Abu Tor neighborhood.
Placing
Hanukkiot by a window or door fulfills
the commandment to "publicize the miracle."
Hanukkah, the eight-day "festival of lights" begins with the lighting of the first candle at sundown on the eve of the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, also called the Jewish calendar. Each year, the corresponding day on the Gregorian [civil] calendar changes, and this year, Hanukkah began at sundown on Tuesday, December 20, 2011.

No matter how the Hebrew word חֲנֻכָּה is transliterated into English (Hanukkah, Hanukka, Chanukka, Chanukkah, [fill in your own]), no matter the era or place people celebrate it —
What is most inspiring about Hanukkah is that it memorializes the first clear victory in history for freedom of worship, a celebration that, as contemporary rabbis point out, belongs to all religious people.
— From the Desire of the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill

Hanukkah Q&A

What is the difference between a traditional Menorah and a Hanukkah Menorah (Hebrew: Hanukkiah)?
The seven-branched Menorah is a candelabrum of Jewish historical and ritual meaning that appears on ancient coins, gravestones, and synagogue decorations, and is today the seal and emblem of the State of Israel.

The nine-branched Hanukkah Menorah (Hebrew: Hanukkiah) is a candelabrum with eight branches of equal size and height (one for each night of the Hanukkah festival) and a separate (ninth) candleholder for the "Shamash" (Hebrew: attendant). We use the Shamash to light the other eight candles, in observance of the ruling to view the Hanukkah lights, not to use them.

What's the story?
The Hanukkah festival commemorates the (second century BCE) Jewish Maccabees' military victory over the Greek-Syrian army and the rededication of the Second Temple to the worship of God.

Why the lights?
The Temple purification began on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in the year 165 BCE. According to the Talmud, the single-days-worth of pure oil found in the Temple miraculously burned eight days, until more pure oil could be brought.

Victory's message?
"Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit." לֹא בְחַיִל, וְלֹא בְכֹחַ--כִּי אִם-בְּרוּחִי (Zachariah 4:6, whom we read this Shabbat following the Torah portion).

Where is the history recorded?
The First Book of Maccabees tells how, in response to religious persecution and oppression, Judah Maccabee and his four brothers organized a group of resistance fighters who succeeded to drive the far larger Greek-Syrian army out of Judea.

How do we celebrate this fun festival?
Lighting the Hanukkiah is the central observance. Whereas once all lights were oil lamps, using candles is a lot simpler. The first night, a single candle (or oil-dipped wick) is lit, with an additional one lit each successive night.

While lighting the candles, we recite blessings, chant the ancient Hanerot Hallalu, and play dreidel games. We (over)eat oil-rich foods featuring potato pancakes and Hanukkah donuts called sufganiyot (shown on the right), commemorating the miracle of the oil that burned eight days.

What about gifts?
The custom of giving Hanukkah gelt (money) in the form of gold-foil-wrapped chocolate coins to children once brought pure bliss to me and my older sister and to previous generations. (Shiny pennies, won playing dreidel games, were acceptable, too.) I recall the year we got pink gloves! Mine were angora, marking not only graduation from mittens but equally from practical plain wool! My sister's, on the minus side, were wool, while on the plus side, featured black velvet ribbon threaded through each wristband. Whose was the prettier gift? I still wonder.

Who am I remembering this year as I kindle the Hanukkah lights?
My childhood family: my mother and my father, my maternal grandparents, and my sister. My Israeli family.

And I am remembering children everywhere who desperately need light to shine on them. Children whose spirits are darkened by ignorant adults, unemployed or underemployed parents, poor diets, insufficient shelters, shabby clothing, inadequate health care, disinterested leaders, and misguided politicians. Children whose birthright is light daily, and who require comprehensive support and services steadily.

And I ask myself: What am I doing to help shine the light?

NOTE: In this post, I changed only the Gregorian date of Hanukkah in my original post December 4, 2007.