Chanukah - A Minor That has Become a Major

It’s really a minor that’s become a major. But try telling your children, or grandchildren, Chanukah is just a minor holiday. Why is Chanukah considered a minor holiday? For starters, the story is not found in the Torah, or even in our Bible. And there is no masechet or book of the Talmud dedicated to this holiday or its laws and traditions. In fact, in the entire Talmud, there is only half a page dedicated to any discussion about this holiday. You may know as well that the earliest versions of the story of Chanukah are found in the Apocrypha, in the Books of First and Second Maccabees, books ironically which were preserved, not by the Jewish community, but by the Church, and were written most likely in Greek. The word apocrypha itself means obscure or hidden away. The story can be found as well in the early church’s Greek and Latin bibles, but not in ours. It is ironic that the story of Chanukah is preserved in Greek, as the major issue of this holiday is the pressure of hellinization, of the in-roads made by Greek and Macedonian culture into the world of ancient Jerusalem. In many ways, the true story of Chanukah is the story of an internal Jewish war and struggle—a struggle we still grapple with today. How can we live both in the modern world, and affirm all that is good about modernity and shape and fashion our Jewish identity at the same time? (For a great read about this true story of Chanukah, see Harry Olitzky’s wonderful essay ”Chanukah: What Really Happened,” published in Moment Magazine, December 1984). The irony of this “minor” holiday goes even further. We know that it was the early Christian church that preserved these books, and maybe even initiated the celebration of this holiday, but why? Even if they considered themselves “the New Jews, with the New Testament,” what attraction was there for them in this story, when the early Jewish tradition didn’t hang on to it? The Book of Second Maccabees tells two interesting stories connected with Chanukah. In the story of Eliazer, an elderly scribe, he chooses martyrdom rather than eat pork. In fact, he even refuses to appear to eat pork, rather than mislead anyone. It also tells of a woman, in later Rabbinic tradition identified as Hannah, and her seven sons, who are all-- in gory, bloody fashion—martyred, rather than forsake their religion. These tales of martyrdom may have appealed to the early church as precursors, or as foreshadowing of Jesus’ crucifixion story. Or, maybe the early church fathers, themselves suffering terrible persecution and oppression by Rome, could better relate to these tales of martyrdom than most of our rabbis, who chose not to fight Rome, but to be loyal to Rome and her demands. But all this is probably beside the point in 2009. Just try convincing any of our children or grandchildren, that this minor, almost forgotten holiday isn’t a major. So, what is this holiday really all about? How is it that this minor became a major? What messages or teachings does it offer us today? What is Chanukah? That’s how the Talmud begins its one paragraph discussion of this day. The Talmud continues, “The rabbis taught that when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils, therein, and when the Hasmonian dynasty prevailed against, and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest. There was only enough oil in it to light for one day. But a great miracle happened with this oil, and it lasted for eight days. The following year, these days were made holy with praise, and thanksgiving.” This is the story of Chanukah most of us learned as children. This version of Chanukah is still a favorite amongst our children, inspiring them with mystery and a sense of awe each night as they recount the tale and the rekindling of all eight lights on the final night. The challenge of this story is it is mostly wrong. The Book of Maccabees, our historical source for most of what we know about Chanukah doesn’t seem to know about the miracle of the oil. In truth, (at least according to the Book of Macabees), Chanukah was a delayed celebration of Sukkot, our only eight day holiday. But let’s assume for a brief moment that the miracle of the cruse of oil is -true. The length of the holiday at first glance seems quite logical - eight days in commemoration of an eight day miracle. However, upon closer examination a slight problem can be seen. It’s mentioned as early as the twelfth century, but it is most well known as the question of Rabbi Joseph Karo in his famous book, Beit Yosef. If there was only enough oil to burn for one night, and it miraculously burned for eight, then the miracle was only for seven days, not eight, so why do we celebrate for eight days? What was the miracle of the first day? Everyone agreed the oil would burn for one day. This question has occupied the minds of some of the leading Jewish thinkers, particularly in the last few hundred years. A variety of solutions has grown to the point that a recently published book, Meir L'mea – Light for a Hundred, included a collection of one hundred different answers. I’m moved by this answer as to what was the miracle of the first day. There is a fundamental Jewish principle that miracles don’t happen in a vacuum, human effort must be extended and material substance must be present. It took courage to light that menorah. The miracle of the first day was having the courage to kindle light in the face of certain failure. Miracles do not just happen, and God’s presence in the world can not be felt without our efforts. To me, this is the great message of Chanukah to us today. Chanukah teaches us to have the courage to act--even in the face of certain failure. Chanukah reminds us that there will be times in our lives that are dark and fearful, times when all reason and logic say you will fail. But we must choose to act even in the face of failure, even when failure appears inevitable. We light the holiday lights to honor this courage. One light, then two lights, then three and four…each light adds energy to the next. And where do we place our flames of hope? In the window of our home. The light of Chanukah is to be seen and shared. We say to the world, “Here is a home devoted to courage and hope. We open our doors and share our light with all that walk in darkness.” Yes. It is a minor that has become a major. In truth, I suppose that without Christmas to focus our attention on this winter holiday, Chanukah would probably fade from our memory, but let it not be Christmas alone that makes Chanukah meaningful. Think of the dark times in your life and how best to overcome them. Think of others in need and how best to reach out to them. Kindle the flames of hope this Chanukah and know that this is a holy day, worthy of our love.