You’ve probably heard it a million times: Hanukkah is a pretty minor Jewish holiday, superseded even by Shabbat, which arrives every Friday at sunset, not to mention all the other holidays in the packed Jewish calendar. It’s not the Jewish Christmas. The most pious, observant Jew goes to work on Hanukkah and there is no special service in synagogue. There are latkes and jelly doughnuts, of course, menorahs to light and songs to sing, but that’s pretty much it. No dazzling arrays of winter greenery and lights adorning doors and rooftops, and no biblical verses to recite because the two books about the Maccabees aren’t included in the Hebrew Bible.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a year when a celebration doesn’t interrupt winter gloom and darkness — or missing out on the commercial pleasures of the so-called holiday season. Hanukkah presents are a distinctly modern invention.
Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem (the Western Wall in Jerusalem remains of that structure) and the military victory of the Maccabees, a small minority, over the Syrian Greeks 135 before the common era and the re-establishment of a political Jewish state. Had Maccabees failed, Judaism probably would have been eliminated. That was the idea of the despot Antiochus: one culture, one religion, one way of perceiving man’s function in the world. And perhaps there would have been no Jesus a century or so later, the teacher seen as fulfilling biblical prophecies of a Jewish messiah with a universal message. The temple that the Maccabees restored is the temple described in the Gospels, after all.
So despite the criticism against the Americanization of Hanukkah and its materialistic appropriations, the two holidays are deeply related.
The eight candles on a menorah symbolize the eight days oil burned miraculously in the temple, when only one day of oil was found — a story imagined much later. The real miracle of Hanukkah is that the Jewish tradition survived, resisting both the oppression by the dominant Greek culture and the attraction of assimilation from within. It celebrates the miracle of individuality, the idea that a uniform and identical worldview, without cultural variation, is not satisfactory. Everyone in a society is different and unique — and valued. The story of Hanukkah celebrates the promise that a small group of people, like the ragtag Maccabees living in the Judean hills, can succeed, and change the status quo.
These days we need a lot of hope to believe the world can change for the better. Hanukkah can break the darkness of early nightfall — and restore the hope of brighter days ahead, in a world filled with justice and respect for all.