What Chanukah Means To Me

Oh sure, here we go again in the Diaspora, the completely irrelevant and false analogies linking Chanukah to the Christian celebration of Christmas. These are two holidays, which in reality only share the same time of the year. The obscene (yes, obscene) conjunction of the two into something, (barf) called “Chrismukah” is a typical example of assimilation and a Galut sickness involving the loss of true Jewish identity in American culture and other Western societies where many Jews believe that it is better to go along and get along than remain steadfast to their own traditions and honorable history.

Well, there is much more to Chanukah than spinning dreidels, eating potato pancakes, jelly donuts and other fried foods. And the holiday is not about gift giving, which is a sop to Jewish kids who see their Christian friends with arms laden with new toys and games. Yes, there is an Ashkenazic practice of giving coins to children as a reward for learning, just as mothers used ot make honey flavored cookies in the shape of the Hebrew letters of the alphabet to teach their kids that learning was sweet. Sephardic Jews, also at Chanukah, would make foods fried in olive oil, including cakes, to commemorate the miracle  of the Temple oil which had not been defiled by the pagan Syrian Greeks when they occupied the land of Israel.

Now, let us tell the real Chanukah story, why it is nothing like the Christmas that falls on December 25th, the ancient Roman date that celebrated the Winter Solstice, For Chanukah, which is the 25th day of the month of K,islev, can fall on any day in December that matches with the Hebrew calendar.

Chanukah commemorates the victory of a Jewish army, under the command of Yehudah ha Maccabi( Judah the Maccabi-Maccabi being an amalgram of the army’s battle cry-“Mi k’mocha ba eilim Adoshem?”-“Who is like unto thee O L-rd.”) He was the son of Mattityahu of Modi’in, a Hebrew town in the midst of the Land of Israel.

The king of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes, a ruler who was more Greek than Arab, placed on the throne by the conquest of his ancestor who seized what became Israel, Syria and Lebanon, from the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt centuries before.  He declared that he was to be worshiped as a god and had his statues, or a bust of his head, placed in the town squares of every village in the land of Israel and decreed that every Jew must bow down to this likeness of his at least once a day. He also banned the teaching of Torah, of teaching the Hebrew  language (that is why kids play with dreidels, which are spinning tops decorated with letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the Exile, the letters are Nun (N) Gimel(G) Hey(H) Shin(Sh) which are, in Hebrew-“Nes Gadol Haya Sham”-” A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the letters are all the same, except for the last one, which becomes “Pay”(P) in Hebrew which then the sentence becomes-“A great miracle happened HERE.”) and the practice of circumcision which is what binds the Jewish people together.

Naturally, just as in the Diaspora today, there were Jews who said that to get along one must go along, so assimilation was rife, especially among the upper classes and the bourgeoisie. Jewish men and women dressed as Greeks, spoke the Koine, which was a common Greek dialect, naked Jewish boys and men participated in the games and gymnasia, and none who were circumcised were permitted to be any part of this and there were even Jews who prostrated themselves before the pagan idols of Antiochus, the mad ruler who claimed to be a god-in fact, the word, Epiphanes, means “god made manifest.”

Matityahu, who was of the priestly class of Cohanim, saw the coming destruction of all Jewish life under this tyrannical rule. Not only did he witness his fellow Jews bowing before idols, but the Syrian king had demanded that the Jews sacrifice an animal in the synagogues to his honor and that animal had to be a pig.  The swine, as you know, is an animal strictly forbidden as a food to Jews, it is even forbidden to come into any physical contact with that creature-to touch a pig was considered an abomination, no less to bring one into a synagogue.

One day, in Modi’in (a city that has been rebuilt in modern Israel near the graves of the Maccabim) Matityahu witnessed one of his neighbors about to bow before the pagan idol and he slew the man with a sword and then, with his five sons, fled into the hills and slowly, an army of faithful Jews took shape and launched a revolt against the rule of the pagans. This is the first war for religious freedom in the annals of human history.

The Maccabean Revolt, which was a full scale war, in which the Syrian forces even employed elephants as warrior animals, was fought over the length and breadth of the land of Israel. Judah, himself, was slain in battle while killing an elephant. The only way that they knew was successful, by spearing it in its belly from underneath and hoping to get away in time before being crushed under its weight.

Judah was an exemplary commander and led his army to victory after victory, By his courage and example, the Syrian Greeks were defeated in 165BCE and the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled by the pagans with idols and swine, was cleansed of all the filth that had been accumulating. To celebrate their victory, the Maccabim sought to re-kindle the holy Menorah, the seven branched candelabra of the Temple (the candelabra for Chanukah is not a Menorah, as it has nine fittings for lights. In Hebrew, its proper name is a “Chanukiah”) but they could only find enough sacred oil to last for one day. Miraculously, the light burned for eight days, thus, Chanukah is celebrated for eight days and nights by landing a candle for each day of the holiday. Of course, this might only be a fable, that perhaps the battle for the city or the time it took to cleanse the Temple took eight days, but that is a minor point. The major point of the holiday is that the Jewish people restored their sovereignty after it had been lost in 586BCE during the Babylonian conquest that destroyed Solomon’s Temple, the first Temple.

The Hasmonean rulers, for Matityahu was of the Hashmona’im, were great warriors, but dreadful rulers. After their victory, many Jews were slain who had allied themselves with the Syrian Greeks and the war costs thousands of lives, The Hasmonean leadership’s history is full of corruption, murder, and even, one priest named Jason, who sought to bring back some of the pagan practices. However, a political alliance with Roman dominated Egypt. brought the legions of Pompey into Jerusalem after only a century of Hebrew independence, and there would be no more Hebrew sovereignty over the land (except for a short period of three years during the Bar Kochba Rebellion in 132-135CE) until the birth of the modern State of Israel in May, 1948.

Because of the bloodiness and cruelty of the Maccabean Revolt, when the Hebrew Testament was  finally compiled, the Book of the Maccabees was excluded from the Tanach. It can be found in the Christian Testament and there begins the dangerous assimilation of the two holidays,

Christmas celebrates the birth of their “Savior.” In fact, the words “Jesus Christ” are Greek for “Joshua the Messiah(anointed one). According to many Christian theologians, the book of the Maccabees is a portent to the coming of their messiah and therefore is included in their biblical text. The comingling of the holidays by calendar might just a temporal accident or a definite attempt to bind the celebrations together, However, from a historical and practical interpretation of the actual event, one has nothing to do with the other. As Jews do not recognize the Christian messiah, that only G-d can be worshiped and that He is One and the only Ruler of the Universe and the concept of a “trinity” that can be worshiped,is anathema to the singularity of the Deity, makes the very concept of Christmas devoid of any Jewish connection except for the Judaism of its progenitor as “Jesus” was not the creator of a new faith as he never left the Jewish religion-Christianity as it is known today, arose several hundred years after his death.

Chanukah, with all its meaning, is a minor holiday. It is nowhere akin to Passover, which celebrates the freedom of the Jews from Egyptian bondage under the leadership of Moses, nor does it come anywhere near the holiness of Rosh haShana (New Year) or that most sacred of observances, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). However, it has a lasting meaning in its message of dedication-just as the Maccabim restored the practices of our faith and cleansed the Temple and the land of paganism and idolatry, so must we, the Jewish people, in the Exile and those of us blessed to live in the land of Israel, re-dedicate ourselves to the renewal of our Jewish spirit and the defense and vitality of our tiny Jewish country.

We must teach our children to be proud and honorable Jews, to take pride in their people’s achievements and to know the faith and the people from which they have sprung. No, I am not demanding orthodoxy as a way of life, nor am I denigrating the other forms of Jewish worship. What Chanukah demands is that we EDUCATE and instill in our youth the traditions of all Jews so that they can be aware and cognizant of why we are who we are and why it is vital for them to remain Jews, not only in the lands of Exile, but even within Israel itself.

We must dedicate ourselves to the defense of our people wherever they live and to never forget that we do not bow down to false idols be they of stone or non-Jewish symbols. That we will not live on our knees before our enemies, but stand on our feet, with weapons in hand, if need be, and defy any foe to attack us in the streets where we live, the roads upon which we travel, or in the synagogues where we worship.

We must dedicate ourselves in the lands of the Exile, to encourage aliyah, emigration to the homeland, to strengthen its survival and to create a Jewish culture based on the land and language that is ours alone. For only in Israel can the Jewish people be truly free and independent, For only in Israel can we defend ourselves as Jews and only in Israel, can we ensure to Jewish future for coming generations.

Yes, Chanukah is a minor holiday with major meaning and a tradition of fighting for liberty, religious freedom, independence and Jewish survival.

About the Author
Irwin was born in New York City and is now retired. He lives in Maaleh Adumim since making aliyah 7 years ago.