Barry Newman

Acknowledging the Miracle of Chanukah the Jewish Way

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Who would have thought that the few months between Simchat Torah and Chanukah, this year, would have been so full of turbulence and despair. Instead of preparing for the upcoming Festival of Lights with plans for children’s activities and family outings, the country is uniformly focused on the war with Hamas and the plight of the hostages.

Chanukah, of course, will neither be cancelled or postponed, and the flames from chanukiot will shine brightly for eight consecutive evenings. This year, though, they’ll be a major difference. Each evening, along with thanking G-d for the miracles he made happen for our ancestors, we’ll be asking that one very special miracle be performed.

But Chanukah is not without a notable deficiency.

A non-Jewish colleague asked me some time ago which, of all the wonderful foods associated with the Jewish holidays, was my favorite. I gave it some thought before responding that while I love the cheesecake we enjoy on Shavuoth and always look forward to the annual matzoh brie breakfasts during the week of Passover, my choice would have to be the head of the boiled carp that graces the dinner table on the first night of Rosh Hashana. “The bulging eyes are particularly tasty,” I added.

The look my colleague gave me was a combination of shock and disbelief, until he realized I was joking and that the fish head was not really my favorite (although I do enjoy nibbling on it). Truth to be told, it was not very difficult for me to provide an answer to the question. Gefilte fish and matzo balls obviously don’t count since they are overly common and not associated with any one specific holiday or festival, and I’m not particularly fond of dried fruits that are enjoyed on Tu B’Shvat. On the other hand, I very much look forward to the hamantaschen that define, culinarily, the festival of Purim, with the latkes eaten during Chanukah coming in a close second.

I was reminded of this conversation after recently receiving a video of my grandson delighting in a chocolate covered sufganiya. Judging from the smile on his smudged-up face, I’m sure he would have no difficulty identifying his favorite Jewish holiday food. The difference between his favorite and mine, though, is rather startling. The oil-laden sufganiyot (and, of course, latkes) are stark reminders of the miracle we are annually commemorating on Chanukah. They are, in other words, more than merely snacks or tasty side dishes; the oil with which they are made represent the miraculous suspension of nature and is the essence of the Festival of Lights. Hamantaschen – or oznei Haman (Haman’s ears, in Hebrew) – on the other hand, are three-cornered pastries that provide no specific reference to or reminder of Purim; there is no definitive explanation as to whether they are symbols the hat that that Haman wore, the shape of his ears, or his pockets that were, allegedly, filled with bribe money. To be sure, the heroics of Esther and Mordechai are remembered in a number of different ways, including the  positive requirement to participate in a formal meal (Seudat Purim). Odd that no similar requirement has ever been established for Chanukah.

Not that the miracles associated with Chanukah are unappreciated or taken for granted. On the contrary, during the morning service of all eight days the prayer of Hallel (literally, Praise) is recited to reflect the kindness that G-d has bestowed upon the Jewish people, and the liturgy throughout the week is amended to include acknowledgement of our miraculous rescue from the evil Hellenic government that attempted to force the Jews to forsake the wisdom and laws of the Torah. No mention of holding a festive meal or enjoying any specific food or delicacy, however, is found in these sources.

The enjoyment of food is, as we all know, an inseparable part of the Jewish tradition (as goes the old joke: “They tried to kill us, they lost, let’s eat”). Festive meals are required as part of many rituals and ceremonies, including the Passover seder, a brit mila (circumcision), redemption of the first born (pidyon ha’ben), and upon completing a tractate of Talmud (siyum masechet), among others. And while not an absolute requirement, it is not uncommon for someone who has survived a personal trauma – such as but not limited to a serious illness or life-threatening accident – to convey his or her gratitude by inviting friends and family to participate in a seudat hodaya (meal of thanksgiving). So, why is there no meal mandated during the week of Chanukah? Can there be any greater reason to have a seudat hodaya than to commemorate the survival of the Jewish people from the very real threat of both spiritual and physical annihilation?

This is not to say that Chanukah dinners are not scheduled throughout the week. The eight days of the festival provide ample opportunity for informal get togethers where candles are lit, dreidels are spun, songs are sung, and, obviously, latkes and sufganiyot are consumed. But these are convened based on free time and opportunity. Unlike Purim, no specific day during the week of Chanukah has been designated for a meal of thanksgiving, during which we would express out gratitude for the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. An inexcusable oversight if you ask me.

It’s possible, of course, that there was, undocumented and unrecorded, thought and discussion among the rabbis regarding establishing as a positive commandment the requirement to have a festive meal, but agreement regarding the logistics were just too unattainable. We know, for example, that Esther invited both Achashverosh and Haman to a dinner, during which she had the evil decree against the Jews of Persia reversed. That meal provides the basis for the requirement to participate in a festive meal on Purim. Chanukah, unfortunately, has no similar reference.

In addition, there would surely have been an unresolved debate among the rabbis as to when the meal should be held. Some would have probably taken the position that the meal should be held on the first night, as a way of welcoming the eight-day festival. Others would argue that the meal should be a pleasant reminder of the week that just passed and would best be enjoyed at the time the last candle is lit. So, as it was in Gershwin’s potato/potatah conflict, the whole idea of requiring a festive meal during Chanukah may very well have been called off.

Chanukah celebrates our national physical, spiritual, and cultural survival against what were most certainly insurmountable odds. While lighting candles throughout the week, nibbling on holiday nosh, and participating in festive-related activities and parties are all well and good, they do not quite convey the appreciation we must show for the multi-faceted miracles that we were blessed with. A Seudat Chanukah is conspicuously absent from the halakhot and protocols that are part of the eight days. I hope we won’t have to wait for the arrival of the Mashiach before this missing component is corrected.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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