Jews all over the world will soon be celebrating the festival of Hanukkah by lighting the menorah and savoring symbolic foods.
However, even the most thoughtful modern commentators rarely note that the historical events Hanukkah commemorates also represent a striking yet unheralded contribution to the evolution and establishment of Judaism’s highest value.
The Hanukkah story, familiar to both Jews and non-Jews, is that after Alexander the Great conquered Judea (what is known today as the West Bank), the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV conquered Egypt, and subsequently seized Jerusalem.
He gutted the Temple, desecrated it by installing idols, forbade circumcision, suppressed Jewish observance in public and prohibited Temple sacrifices, all while forcing even Jewish leaders to sacrifice to idols.
The Jewish priest Mattathias called upon those Jews who remained committed to tradition to revolt. His three sons, who came to be known as the Maccabees began a military campaign against the invaders. Commanded by Judah, Mattathias’ third son, they led a successful revolt and restored both the Temple and Jewish rule in the region.
The festival of Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus and commemorates the “miracle of the container of oil.” According to the Talmud (a 6,200-page compendium of Judaism’s Oral Law and elucidation on this law and the Torah itself), at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough oil to fuel the Ner Tamid (Hebrew for ‘eternal flame,’) in the Temple for one day.
Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil. These events are commemorated with the festival of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights.
Although the Maccabees are credited with victory, their refusal to fight on the Sabbath led to the horrific loss of nearly a thousand lives to Antiochus’ forces.
After this catastrophe, it was reasoned that when attacked, Jews must defend themselves, even on Shabbat [the 7th day and the Hebrew word from which the word ‘Sabbath’ originated].
This historical event gave birth to Judaism’s ultimate moral imperative, the preservation and protection of life.
To understand how important this is, consider the importance of the Jewish Sabbath.
Shabbat is actually the most important observance in Judaism. Unlike annual holidays, it is observed once each week and is the only observance mandated in the Ten Commandments.
Traditional laws of Shabbat include thirty nine categories of prohibited activities. These categories include such diverse activities as engaging in business of any sort, the use of telephones and computers, any sort of gardening, cooking, writing, lighting or extinguishing a fire and if one is orthodox, driving.
Lest one think that because of these restrictions, Sabbath observance is self-deprivation for orthodox Jews, the reality is that for such observant Jews, it is pure liberation.
Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his classic book The Sabbath, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”
Because of this and more, Shabbat is pure joy for observant Jews. So much so that it is even a sin to be sad on Shabbat.
Herman Wouk, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author, whose novels include The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, offered this description of the Jewish Sabbath in the context of his life and career:
The Shabbat has cut most sharply athwart my own life when one of my plays has been in rehearsal or in tryout.
The crisis atmosphere of an attempt at Broadway is a legend of our time, and a true one; I have felt under less pressure going into battle at sea. Friday afternoon, during these rehearsals, inevitably seems to come when the project is tottering on the edge of ruin. I have sometimes felt guilty of treason, holding to the Shabbat in such a desperate situation. But then, experience has taught me that a theater enterprise almost always is in such a case. Sometimes it does totter to ruin, and sometimes it totters to great prosperity, but tottering is its normal gait, and cries of anguish are its normal tone of voice.
So I have reluctantly taken leave of my colleagues on Friday afternoon, and rejoined them on Saturday night. The play has never collapsed in the meantime. When I return I find it tottering as before, and the anguished cries as normally despairing as ever. My plays have encountered in the end both success and failure, but I cannot honestly ascribe either result to my observing the Shabbat.
Leaving the gloomy theater, the littered coffee cups, the jumbled scarred-up scripts, the haggard actors, the knuckle-gnawing producer, the clattering typewriter, and the dense, tobacco smoke has been a startling change, very like a brief return from the wars.
My wife and my boys, whose existence I have almost forgotten in the anxious shoring up of the tottering ruin, are waiting for me, dressed in holiday clothes, and looking to me marvelously attractive. We have sat down to a splendid dinner, at a table graced with flowers and the old Shabbat symbols: the burning candles, the twisted challah loaves, the stuffed fish, and my grandfather’s silver goblet brimming with wine. I have blessed my boys with the ancient blessings; we have sung the pleasantly syncopated Shabbat table hymns.
The talk has little to do with tottering ruins. My wife and I have caught up with our week’s conversation. The boys, knowing that Shabbat is the occasion for asking questions, have asked them. We talk of Judaism. For me it is a retreat into restorative magic.
Shabbat has passed much in the same manner. The boys are at home in the synagogue, and they like it. They like even more the assured presence of their parents. In the weekday press of schooling, household chores, and work — and especially in play producing time — it often happens that they see little of us. On Shabbat we are always there and they know it. They know too that I am not working and that my wife is at her ease. It is their day.
It is my day, too. The telephone is silent. I can think, read, study, walk or do nothing. It is an oasis of quiet. My producer one Saturday night said to me, “I don’t envy you your religion, but I envy you your Shabbat.”
However, Jews are not merely permitted to engage in activities otherwise prohibited on the Sabbath – and almost every other Jewish law – if human life is imperiled. They are required to do so. This principle is known as Pikuah Nefesh (preserving life).
Thus, if an observant Jew discovers that his or her neighbor has become seriously ill on Shabbat and the quickest means to get the neighbor the care he needs is to drive him to the hospital himself, he is not merely permitted to do so. He is commanded to. It is why one might find orthodox Jewish doctors on duty in hospitals on the Sabbath.
Because saving life is so important, even the haredim (Israeli ultra-orthodox Jews), historically notorious for their resistance to public service, now serve in the military, making up the Netzah Yehuda Battalion (sometimes called Nahal Haredi), a unit within the Kfir Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces.
In order to maintain basic and emergency functions, many army tasks, which would normally be forbidden on Shabbat, must be performed on Shabbat. The guiding principle for Shabbat-observant soldiers is Pikuah Nefesh. If the function may plausibly save a life, it supersedes the laws of Shabbat. Before using electric equipment for radio communication, writing, and performing guard duty, observant soldiers consider whether they could be justified according to the principle.
When the Maccabees chose to defend themselves even on the Sabbath, they recognized life as above all else. To understand Hanukkah as the birth of Pikuah Nefesh is to recognize the candle’s flame as more than a commemoration of history’s ‘high mileage oil lamp.’
To understand this overlooked aspect of Hanukkah is to see the flames from the menorah as an avatar for the divine spark of life itself.