Tonight is the first night of Chanuka. That means it is the 25th of Kislev. (It is also the day our family traditionally celebrated my grandfather’s birthday- who only knew his birthday was on Chanuka.) The holiday of Chanuka is NOT the same as Christmas, even though the Christians adopted the 25th for their celebration.
Our celebration is a minor Jewish holiday. There is no requirement to refrain from work, no do we say the “full Hallel”, either. (Hallel- ‘Praise’- is a part of our normal holiday prayers, where we recite psalms (or sing them) to praise the Supreme Being on each holiday.)
Chanuka is the celebration of the revolt of the Maccabees against the Greeks- in particular, against a boorish king called Antiochus. And, the Great Temple was taken back in the actions started by Matisyahu, a Kohen (priest). Yehuda, his eldest son, was the warrior/leader who led the battles and adopted the name “Makabi”, which means “The Hammer”.
The name- ‘Cha-nu’ ‘KH’- means ‘dedication on the 25th’ or ‘dedication here’. That’s the way folks want to remember the event. Once the Great Temple was freed from the Greeks, it was cleaned, purified, and rededicated to the uses of the Supreme Being.
The “official” story is that during the temple’s purification, they found only one cruse of oil; it took a week to prepare more pure oil. But, that didn’t matter to the Makabi- they would act now and see what happened… And, the menora (the ritual SEVEN branched candelabra) remained lit for eight days, until the new oil was ready. The lesson we draw from this is action is important- there is no time like the present.
What is not normally discussed is that this holiday really celebrates not just the singular battle against the Greeks, but against the assimilators. Anyone who would not return to the fold was fair game. Not much different than the Tea Party trying to purge competing conservatives from the Republican party- except this purging involved swords and death. It was a lot more similar to the radical Islamicists beheading those co-religionists who don’t follow their extreme practices of religion.
But, nowadays, the Chanuka holiday serves to celebrate our religious freedom- our freedom to worship as we want. By lighting candles or oil lamps each night for eight nights. And, just like the Jews did when they were being released from Egypt (they put the blood of the animal [which was a god of the Egyptians, to boot] on their doorpost, making it clear to all within sight that they believed in the Supreme Being), our chanukiyas (with eight equal lights and one extra with which we light the others) are kept so the world outside can see the light. It’s another way we bring light to the world.
Our celebration also includes giving small gifts to our children (and, nowadays, this practice has been extended to our relatives) and lighting the candles, as listed above. Besides the ritual prayers for lighting the candles (three blessings are sung the first night, two the rest of the nights), there are two other prayers: Haneirot Halalu- ‘these precious lights’- and Maoz Tzur- ‘Rock of Ages’ (which, contrary to popular belief, has many stanzas!). I recall with fondness one of the other songs (He Struck the Traitor to the Earth- or “Matisyahu”) I learned as a child- and taught my children.
Feel free to NOT listen!
Happy Chanuka. May the lights of this holiday erase the darkness in all our lives.