Hanukkah: Holiness and the Clash of Cultures

Hanukkah is unlike other Yom Tovim (festivals). It feels quiet and contemplative. The key mitzvah takes place at home, unlike the long shul (synagogue) services that characterise most other Yom Tovim.

This seems strangely inappropriate for a festival that is focused on the Temple and war. The key events in the Hanukkah story are the desecration, liberation and re-consecration of the Temple, from which we get the name Hanukkah, meaning dedication. It was only in this context that the miracle of the oil occurred. Following this logic, we should just light one communal hanukkiah (Hanukkah lamp) in shul, to represent the one lit in the Temple. Alternatively, we could light one public, outdoor hanukkiah. Why did the rabbis tell us to “publicise the miracle” by lighting in every home?

Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl describes the events of the Hanukkah story as one of first clashes of civilisations. In the pagan ancient world, the conquest of one culture by another usually led to a merging of cultures and religions. Sometimes even the defeated nation’s culture would become dominant, as happened when Rome invaded Greece and adopted much of Greek culture. The polytheistic nature of pagan society enabled this, as more gods could easily be incorporated into the pantheon.

Obviously, this option was not open to Judaism with its pure monotheism. When the Seleucid Greek king Antiochus, ruler of the land of Israel, demanded worship by the Jews, a violent clash of cultures became inevitable. For Hellenistic (Greek) culture, this meant not just paganism, but the cult of the perfect body, including opposition to brit milah (circumcision), but also a society based on education and philosophy. As Rabbi Joseph Dweck has argued, this was the first time in Jewish history that the Jewish people were faced with a foreign culture that seemed to be based on values like that of Judaism, particularly the focus on the intellect and textual study, and thus provided an alluring alternative to many Jews who chose to assimilate to the dominant culture, including its pagan religion.

While this was a military battle, the front-line, then and now, was in the home, in the battle against assimilation to the prevailing cultural norms. Only by ensuring strong Jewish homes rooted in Jewish values, traditions and especially Torah study and mitzvah (commandment) performance can Judaism survive. The word Hanukkah is related to the word chinukh, meaning education. Effective education is about dedicating our children to a particular way of life, giving them the skills to understand our sacred texts and study independently, so that they can find the answers they seek to the existential questions of life within Judaism rather than outside it. This must begin and continue at home as well as school, hence the need to light the hanukkiah at home.

This is as true today as it was then, as we face both a military battle in Gaza and a battle for the hearts and minds of often assimilated Jews outside the land of Israel who feel torn between the antisemitic propaganda of the world media and public intellectuals and an instinctive, often-ignored, inner calling to identify with other Jews in crisis. At this time, the need to bring holiness and Jewish engagement into the home is critical.

At this difficult time we should remember the discussion between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai) on how we light the hanukkiah.

Beit Shammai say we should light eight lights on the first night and one less each night, until we light just one light on the last night. This is because we have potential for eight more nights of holiness on the first night, seven on the second and so on.

Beit Hillel say we should light one light on the first night and one more each night, until we light eight lights on the last night. This is because we want to grow in holiness. Unlike Beit Shammai, Beit Hillel focus only on the potential that we have realised so far: one night on the first night, two nights on the second, and so on. At this time, we must remember that all the spiritual potential in the world is no use to us unless we translate it into action.

However, Beit Shammai ultimately derive their position from the Torah, from the seventy bulls offered as sacrifices on Sukkot in Temple times: thirteen on the first day, twelve on the second and so on, decreasing over the seven days. These bulls were traditionally understood to be offered by the Jewish people on behalf of the nations of the world, so that they would receive divine protection in the coming year. However, the declining numbers contrast with the constant fourteen lambs offered every day of Sukkot, representing the Jewish people. The message is that the power of the nations, based on physical prowess, will decline, while the spiritual power of the Jewish people, based on Torah, will continue.

We must remember the message of Beit Hillel, that we should be constantly growing in holiness, but we should also remember the message of Beit Shammai, that evil will inevitably decline in power. May we see it speedily in our days.

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management. He blogs about Judaism, Israel and antisemitism at Living Jewishly
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