In December, when the dark nights grow longer and longer, Jews throughout the world kindle the candles of Hanukah: an eight day Jewish celebration of hope and the human miracle of religious fortitude, faithfulness, and perseverance; and power of faith and trust in God in overcoming disappointment, despair and defeat during years of oppression and persecution.
Over the last three or four generations, Hanukah has increasingly become an important holiday for Jewish families in Europe, and in North and South America. This is especially true for Jewish children.
For many centuries during the Middle Ages, Jewish children went to Jewish schools, lived in Jewish neighborhoods, and had very little contact with non-Jewish children. This all changed in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially after WW2.
Jewish children, from an early age, now became increasingly immersed in the national and religious culture of the Christian world around them. Their natural tendency to want to fit in led many Jewish children to desire to copy non-traditional ways in general, and Christmas practices in particular.
December became the month when Jewish children felt left out if they did not participate in everyones Christmas celebrations; or had mixed conflicting emotions if they did.
Hanukah, with its celebration of the value of standing up for your own religious freedom to celebrate your own religious traditions, became an important event in the education of Jewish children to be proud of their religious heritage.
All of this can be easily understood by first, second and third generation Muslim families living as a small minority in the West, whose ancestors grew up in Muslim majority countries.
In addition, recent attempts to outlaw circumcision in California, Germany, Sweden and other places, by people who think it is barbaric, follow the path of the Syrian Greek king whose decree outlawing circumcision was the final outrage that led to the revolt of the Maccabbees.
This is the Hanukah story I will tell my grand daughters Aisha and Tali after we light the candles, on one of the eight nights of Hanukah (December 10-18 in 2020)
Why light eight lights on Hanukah?
Many people know about Judah Maccabbee, who led the battle against the Syrian Greeks to free Jerusalem and its Holy Temple from foreign control. But no one has ever heard of Shira Maryam, a young girl who helped him win the battle for Jewish religious freedom and independence.
Shira Maryam lived in Jerusalem. Her family was related to Menelaus, a very wealthy man who in 171 BCE bribed the Greek king to appoint him to be the High Priest in Jerusalem. (Second Book of Maccabbees 4:23-5)) Her parents, like many other wealthy Jewish people, preferred to speak Greek, rather than Hebrew.
Her parents also went to the Greek theater instead of attending synagogue on the Sabbath. Even worse, they bought a Greek statue for Shira, and gave it to her on her tenth birthday.
This statue was an idol of one of the Greek Gods. Shira was a faithful believer in the one God of Abraham, and very proud to be Jewish. She did not want an idol of a Greek God in her room, or even in her house. It would be like having a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. She protested to her parents. They pointed out how beautiful the statue was, and how well known the Greeks were for their sculpture.
Finally they said, “You have to get along with the majority, and not stand out as being too different. Since the Greeks are in control, it is important to do what they do.” Shira didn’t agree. She hid the statue in her closet. A few weeks later, she gave it to a non-Jewish friend.
When her baby brother was born, her parents decided they would not have a circumcision. They heard the King was going to forbid the barbaric Jewish custom of circumcision. They did not want to tell that to Shira so they said to her,
“When he grows up, he will want to play sports in a Greek gymnasium. Everyone knows the athletes competing in the Greek gymnasium are naked. If he was circumcised all the Greeks would make fun of him because he is a Jew.”
Shira insisted that her baby brother have a circumcision. “It is terrible to abandon the oldest commandment, first given to Prophet Abraham, just because you’re worried that some stupid Greeks might make fun of someone. If they are prejudiced, we should fight them, not give in to them.” Her parents finally agreed, and her baby brother was circumcised.
When Shira was eleven years old her parents gave her a very costly gift. In those days, all books were handwritten and very expensive, so Shira was very surprised when her parents gave her a copy of Homer, to help her with her school work.
But Shira was not impressed. She told them she would prefer to have a copy of the Torah to help her live a good Jewish life. Her parents finally gave in, and Shira received her own Torah, and a tutor came every day to teach her.
When Shira was twelve years old, Mattathias, the father of Judah Maccabbee, started a revolution against the Greek rulers. Shira’s parents denounced Mattathias and his sons as fanatics. But Shira supported the rebels.
When Shira was fourteen years old she ran away from home to join Judah Maccabbee and the other Jews who were fighting the Syrian Greeks. However, Judah told her that only men could join in the battle.
But she stood up to him too, and pointed out that Prophet Deborah had led a Jewish army against the enemies of the Jewish people, and that Judith had actually cut off the head of an enemy general.
Judah Maccabbee admitted that this was true, and he was wrong in saying that women couldn’t fight. However, he said, “You are still too young. Go back home. If we’re still at war in another 4 or 5 years you can join us.””
“I can join you now,” said Shira Maryam, “I will be a spy and send you information about what is happening in Jerusalem.” Judah Maccabee agreed to that, and Shira returned to Jerusalem.
A year later, just before her fifteenth birthday, Judah Maccabbee and his army surrounded the walls of Jerusalem. However, they were not able to overcome the Greek and Syrian soldiers who were defending the walls.
Shira asked her parents for a Shofar (a ram’s horn sounded on the New Year festival) for a birthday present. She planned to blow the Shofar when she saw a good opportunity for Judah Maccabee and his army to attack. But since her parents always liked non-Jewish things more than Jewish things, they decided to give her a pet octopus.
Shira was very angry. Then she got an idea. She trained the octopus to carry a burning torch in each of its tentacles. When the octopus could do this, she sent a message to Judah Maccabbee. “Tomorrow night at midnight, launch an attack against the north wall of the city near the corner where I live. I will distract the guards. They will all be looking into the city, instead of out from the walls.”
The next night, just before midnight, Shira put her octopus into a barrel, and carried it to a very large pool near the city wall, which was used as a water reservoir. She slipped the octopus into the water. She then took 8 spears that she had taken from the home of her uncle Menelaus, the pro Greek High Priest, and wrapped oily rags around the points.
Giving the eight spears to the octopus, one for each tentacle, she lit them. Then she got into the water and began to swim with the octopus at her side. She called out, “The water is on fire, the water is on fire.”
All the guards on the city wall looked at the amazing sight. There were eight flames moving over the dark water in the reservoir. While they were all looking at the lights. Judah and men from his army climbed the city walls, the wall was overcome, and Jerusalem was liberated.
I do not think this story of Shira Maryam actually happened way back then; but each time a young person of every religious tradition stands up proudly for his or her religion today, the miracle happens again and again.
Traditionally, Jews increase the number of candles by one on each of the eight nights of Hanukah; for “one must ascend in matters of holiness.” Faith helps us grow stronger when we face challenges, and inspires others to also grow in faith.
This is one of life’s’ great miracles. Hope makes a difference. Don’t curse the darkness; light a candle. A Jew must always strive to go higher and higher in matters of light- i.e. Torah, Mitzvot and deeds of loving-kindness.
We use one candle to light all the other candles on the Haanukiya (candelabra) to teach us that the impact of one person’s actions are cumulative and widespread.