It’s Chanukah! Pass the latkes!

And hold the applesauce, please. I never believed in plopping any fruit concoction on a salty potato substance.  It just doesn’t sit right with me.  Or my palate.

Ah yes it is Chanukah again, and so many know about the somewhat ancient holiday that what new could I impart to you my dear readers?  I say somewhat ancient because when it comes to Jewish holidays, the Festival of Lights is fairly late in the game, having been proclaimed a holiday by the leaders of the day, that day being in the year 139 BCE.

Those texts which were accepted within the canon of the Tanach – the Torah, Prophets and Writings, were set in stone, or at least on scrolls, a couple hundred years before Chanukah, so sadly, no books of Maccabees in the Tanach, although we have learned a great deal from those left-out chapters of history.

Chanukah means dedication and was named as such because when the Maccabees gained control of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, Israel, after a war of liberation, they cleansed it and they celebrated, rededicating the formerly defiled temple and their tainted souls as well, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev.

As the story goes, known by Jew and gentile alike, when the Jews entered the temple they only found one small jar of pure olive oil for the lighting of the Menorah, and miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, enough time for the supply to be replenished.

The Hebrew word Chanukah can also be divided into two parts, Chanu, for they rested and Kah, coinciding with the Hebrew letters Chaf and Heh, or 25, each Hebrew letter having a numerical value.  Hence the Jews rested after defeating their Greek Assyrian enemy on the 25th day of the month.

Also, the Hebrew letters of the word Chanukah can be considered an acronym, Chet Neirot V’Halachah K’Beit Hillel, meaning there are eight candles or lights, and they are lit according to the view of Beit Hillel, the House of HIllel.

At the turn of the first century CE, there were two schools of thought, literally.  There was a school named after the scholar Hillel and it was known as Beit Hillel.  The competing school was named after another scholar named Shammai, and it was known as Beit Shammai.  The two leaders debated, and differed on, many issues.  Hillel, who was generally thought of as more lenient, is better known to many than his adversary in part because of some of his quotations.

One famous Hillel quote, in Ethics of the Fathers (1:14) is, “If I am not for myself, who is for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”  When I first heard this way back in elementary school, I was like, “Huh?”  After a couple minutes, I was like, “Oh, cool.”

Another famous quote comes from a story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) of a smart-aleck non-Jew who told Shammai he would convert if the scholar could teach him the entire Torah as he, the nonbeliever, stood on one foot.  An unamused Shammai went after the man with a building tool wanting to make a lasting impression, and not one of words.

The un-funny guy next went to Hillel and made the same request, whereupon Hillel said to him, “That which is unpleasant to you, do not do to your neighbor.  This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”  Yes, the Golden Rule came from Hillel.

What if that age-old question, “Honey, do I look fat in this dress?” was asked just after the nuptials of newly wedded couples in the first century?

Yes, what to say about a bride’s appearance is discussed in the Talmud (Ketuvot 17a).  A Beit Hillel groom would have answered something to the effect, “Of course not, dear.  You look beautiful!”  A Beit Shammai adherent however, would have replied, “I hate to tell you this, honey, but yes, yes you look fat.  And it wouldn’t hurt for you to lay off the brisket.”  Shammai’s point was, one must always tell the truth, period.  Hillel was like, “It can sometimes depend.  Now be nice!”

No word in the Talmud about the divorce rate among Beit Shammai couples, but perhaps the Jews follow Hillel’s rulings, as we indeed do, because Shammai couples might have separated before any consequential proliferation, causing the decline of their kind and so, their influence.  Just a guess.

Oh, right.  Chanukah.  Sorry.

Beit Shammai held that Menorah lights were to be lit in declining fashion, meaning eight on the first night, seven on the second, and so on.  Beit Hillel held they were lit in ascending fashion, one on the first night, two on the second, and so on.

Among the reasons given in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) are the following rationales:  For Beit Shammai, the way to light corresponds to an activity of another joyous holiday, Sukkot (the  Feast of Tabernacles), when young bull sacrifices were given in declining fashion for each day of the festival.  For Beit Hillel, sanctification, as in the Chanukah Menorah-lighting ritual, should only increase and not decrease.  As mentioned above, we rule according to Beit Hillel.

Let’s see.  The Chanukah Dreidel.  It is a four-sided top with Hebrew letters on each side, the first letter of the following Hebrew words Neis Gadol Hayah Sham, a great miracle happened there.  Or in in Israel, Neis Gadol Hayah Poh, a great miracle happened here.

According to tradition, under Greek Assyrian rule, the Jews were forbidden to study the Torah.  So groups would hide and study, but if a soldier would find them, they would hide the scrolls and break out the dreidels and spin them and say they were gambling or playing.  Dreidel in Yiddish means spin.

By the way, each letter corresponds to a game direction, e.g., placing pennies or Chanukah Gelt (chocolate or gum Chanukah coins) or raisins or peanuts or whatever into the “pot,” or taking from the pot in some fashion after a spin, etc.

Finally latkes (potato pancakes).  Because one of Chanukah’s miracles was the one-day oil lasting for eight days, another by the way, being the victory of the small army of Jews over the much larger Greek Assyrian army, it has become customary to eat foods fried in oil.

And after a festive lighting ceremony, what could be more tasty than a latke adorned with any accompanying accoutrement you like (I like mine plain, thank you) or a doughnut, another customary culinary delight, topped or filled with whatever sweet thing you wish, or embellished with nothing at all?  You know what?  I think I will have both latkes and doughnuts.

Happy Chanukah!  And may you and yours have a wonderful and warm, very special holiday season!

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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