Sunday, November 26, 2006



Thank you Aut...

What is Chanukah?

Chanukah means "Dedication / Lights". This is a winter festival that begins on 25th of Kislev and lasts for eight days.

Chanukah is the only ancient holiday that is not written in the (Protestant) Bible. The reason for this is because it took place in the year 165 B.C.E., although the events of Chanukah are described in books 1 and 2 of the Maccabees (which are found in the Catholic Bible).

Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the forces of Antiochus and the recapture of the Temple after a three-year battle. The story tells us when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple they only had one jar of oil that was sealed by the High Priests for lighting the menorah. This only had enough oil in it to last for one night but a miracle happened, the oil lasted for eight days, the time it took to purify new oil for the Temples needs.

Today we celebrate Chanukah by lighting lights on a Chanukiyah over eight days; during this time we also give gifts as well. For Jewish children this is a bit like Christmas but it is not to be confused with it.

Although we are told this is a minor festival, we should see it as a more important one as it tells us about the fight against Alexander the Great and Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria, who tried to wipe out the Jewish people, this again can be seen as a attempt of ethnic cleansing. Buy celebrating Chanukah, lighting the candles and remembering the struggle of the Maccabees we can reflect on the true meaning of the festival. That is the re-assertion of our Jewish faith in a world full of anti-Semitism.

The following article was written for and appears in the December Issue of Sussex Jewish News


We all think we know the answer to this question. But it isn't as straight forward as it seems. Not only do different texts provide different answers, but the meaning of Chanukah has been different at different times and in different places. What meaning does Chanukah have for us here (in Britain) and now?

The rabbis of the Talmud were the first to ask, 'Mah Chanukah?' (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 21b). More than 650 years after the event, were they enquiring about what had happened then, or were they taking the opportunity to offer a new explanation? Another generation of sages, around three hundred years earlier, had pronounced that at Chanukah mourning was forbidden for eight days (Megillat Taanit, 'Scroll of Fasts', 9). Quoting this prohibition, the Talmud goes on to echo a comment on the passage in the Scroll of Fasts: When the Hasmoneans re-took the Temple, they found only one day's supply of oil - but 'a miracle happened', and it lasted for eight.

Interestingly this miracle story does not appear in the two Books of the Macabbees, which tell the story of the struggle against the Syrian Greeks - and the eight day re-dedication of the Temple. Interestingly although these books read like straightforward historical narratives, the sages responsible for finalising the Canon of the Bible two thousand years ago, decided not to include these works in the Bible.

Maccabees II relates: 'They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing in the manner of the Feast of Sukkot, mindful of how but a little while before at the festival of Sukkot they had been wandering about like wild beasts in the mountains and caves' (10: 6). Apparently, Chanukah was, simply, a belated Sukkot celebration. So why didn't the rabbis acknowledge the Books of the Macabbees, and what's all this about the miracle of the oil? 'Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit says the God of Hosts' (Zechariah 4:6). The Haftarah the rabbis selected for reading on Shabbat Chanukah says it all: Rather than glorifying the fighters, the rabbis chose to present the victory as God's work.

The sages regarded Chanukah as a time to recall how God's spirit brought the religious heart of the people back to life. So, what is the meaning of Chanukah for us? Like the Christian festival on which contemporary Chanukah celebrations seem to be modeled, Chanukah has become more than a little materialistic. Of course, the rigours of the dark cold days of winter in Northern Europe demand, quite rightly, that both Christians and Jews alike create oases of warmth and light. Our material needs for comfort are very real. But our souls, too, need to be nurtured. Without rejecting the material dimension of Chanukah, like the rabbis before us, we, too, might ask, Mah Chanukah? Perhaps, as we light the candles each evening, celebrating Chanukah might be an opportunity for exploring ways of re-igniting the sparks within us.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah