a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Eight Nights of Hanukkah: Where Does Hanukkah Come From?

Posted on: December 9, 2012


Hanukkah is probably the most widely known Jewish holiday for Americans living outside of New York. Which is to say that if you’re a person who, say, grew up in Ohio when you thought Jewish you thought Hanukkah.

The proximity to Christmas helped me to be a fair retail manager. I encouraged my associates to wish our guests a “Happy Holiday” rather than “Merry Christmas” but I didn’t know much else about the holiday. So imagine my surprise in conversion class to learn that Hanukkah is only a tiny blip on the Jewish Holiday calendar. Sure, it’s important, but it’s not Yom Kippur, people. So if it’s not that important, and only a minor holiday, why do we celebrate it? And why do so many non-Jews know about Hanukkah and not Sukkot?

Why we celebrate-The basics. With some help from The Maccabeats.

The man tried to hold us down (Greeks) we fought back (go Jews!) we won (Go Jews!) now, let’s eat.

Why we celebrate-The nuts and bolts.

The book of Maccabeats is not in the Torah and I’ll admit to never reading it. In it’s essence, it’s a two-volume text that recounts a very violent, very bloody war. It’s pretty amazing that the humble yet mighty brothers Maccabee were able to defeat the Greek empire’s army. One might even call it a miracle. Funny thing is…in all of that miraculous recounting of the defeat of the Greeks, the restoration of the Temple and the Jewish people…there’s no Gd.

From the Book of Maccabees

“Now on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month, which is called the month of Kislev, in the hundred forty and eighth year, they rose up in the morning, and offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs, citherns, harps, and cymbals…. And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days…. Moreover Judah and his brethren, with the whole congregation of Israel, ordained that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year for eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month Kislew, with mirth and gladness” (I Macc. 4:52-59).

Yup, Gd’s name isn’t uttered once in the entire book…which would make it seem that man doesn’t need Gd in order to win a war, or so the rabbis thought. So in their infinite wisdom they added some Gd (cause everyone needs some Gd in their lives.)

From the Talmud

“What is Hanukkah? For the rabbis have taught: Commencing with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislew there are eight days upon which there shall be neither mourning nor fasting. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil that was there. It was when the might of the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and vanquished them that, upon search, only a single cruse of undefiled oil, sealed by the High Priest, was found. In it was oil enough for the needs of a single day. A miracle was wrought and it burned eight days. The next year they ordained these days a holiday with songs and praises” (B. Shab. 21b: for variations of the story, see Pesiqta Rabbati, ed. Meir Ish Shalom, p. 5a; Megilat Ta’anit, ed. Lichtenstein, P. 341).

So do we celebrate to commemorate a miracle of oil lasting eight days, to we celebrate to commemorate the re-dedication of the Temple, do we celebrate to commemorate the Maccabean revolt or do we celebrate to kick Christmas’ ass?

I celebrate because it’s the first Jewish holiday that I celebrated, three years before my conversion, when I still put up a Christmas tree and blasted carols through my apartment. My sweet girlfriend lit a menorah in her small studio apartment, stumbled over blessings that at the time sounded foreign. I celebrate because it does remind me of Christmas and there’s a small part of me that continues to mourn having a tree (though mourning is forbidden during Chanukkah). I celebrate because it doesn’t really matter what we’re celebrating-the oil, the miracle, the war-but that we’re doing something that nearly every Jew in the world does-maybe at the same time we’re doing it and that’s a lot of light.

Want to learn more? Check out this article about Hanukkah from JTS.

Happy Second Night!


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