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The Meaning of Chanukah – Then and Now

By: Sondra Baras                                                                                                                                                                                             December 4, 2018

Today is Chanukah!  What a joyous holiday!  It is not one of the major Jewish holidays — it certainly does not attain to the stature of the Biblical Feasts commanded to us by G-d (Leviticus 23 among other places).  Unlike the holidays that have come to us from above, this holiday was established from below, by the Jewish people themselves.

The holiday was established to express thanksgiving to G-d for an amazing salvation.  In the 2nd Century BCE, The Syrian Greeks had occupied the Land of Israel, transformed the holy temple in Jerusalem into a pagan temple to Zeus, and forbidden the Jews to practice any of the articles of our faith.  Jews were forbidden to congregate for prayer, forbidden to observe the Sabbath and forbidden from circumcising their babies.  A family of priests led by Judah the Maccabee and with the blessing of their father Matthias, stirred the nation to rebel against the Greeks and they were victorious, ushering in an era of Jewish independence in the Land of Israel (and then autonomy under the Romans) until the Roman destruction of the Temple in the year 70.

Similarly, the holiday of Purim was established by the people in response to salvation from our enemies in ancient Persia.  But that story happened much earlier in time and was included in the Bible in the Book of Esther.  Chanukah is a later holiday and yet it is a holiday that has entered the Jewish Canon of observance.

Interestingly, there were many thanksgiving holidays that were celebrated in ancient times but that have slipped from our traditions.  An ancient volume of the Talmud includes a listing of all these holidays, celebrating victories and miracles that occurred during the Second Temple period.  And yet, all of these holidays have disappeared while Chanukah has remained with us to this day.

I heard a fascinating analysis of this issue by a rabbi who I have studied with for years — Rabbi Elchanan Samet.  A resident of Kfar Etzion in Judea, he is a renowned Biblical scholar.  In reviewing the various Jewish sources for Chanukah, he noted that for centuries the main miracle that is noted on Chanukah is the miracle of the cruet of oil.  After the Maccabees routed the Syrian Greeks in Jerusalem and recaptured the Temple, they destroyed the statue of Zeus that had been placed there as well as the other pagan elements, purified the Temple, and immediately set about lighting the Menorah.  But alas, there was only enough pure and holy oil for one day of lighting and it would take a week to obtain more such oil.  These holy warriors decided to take their chances and light the Menorah anyway, hoping that somehow they would find a way to keep it lit until a new batch of pure oil could be obtained.  G-d wrought a miracle and the oil lasted for the full eight days, until such time as the oil could be replenished.

Rabbi Samet asked a fascinating question.  The ancient sources for the holiday, including the Book of Maccabees, an apocryphal source, either don’t mention the miracle of the oil or assign it secondary importance as compared to the miracle of the victory.  What then is the significance of the miracle of the oil and why is it that for at least the last 1,000 years, it has been considered the primary miracle of Chanukah?

Rabbi Samet provided an equally fascinating answer.  He noted that the lighting of the Menorah was viewed by the people as a symbol of G-d’s presence in the Temple and amongst the people.  Indeed, on a regular basis, the Menorah would burn longer than naturally possible, each and every day, a testament to G-d’s involvement in its holy light.  When the Menorah was extinguished by the Syrian Greeks, they were frightened that G-d’s presence was no longer among them.  Even after their miraculous victory, they looked closely at the Temple, hoping that G-d would show Himself to them, indicating to the people that His presence had come to rest in the Temple.  When the Menorah stayed lit miraculously for 8 full days, they had their answer.  G-d’s presence rested in the Temple once again.

And it is this miracle that was ultimately the most meaningful for it symbolized the source of the military victory and underlined G-d’s everlasting protection over the Jewish people.

I believe that this miracle also held special meaning for the Jewish people in the Diaspora who were centuries away from running an independent country and fighting battles against enemies.  The military victory held little meaning for these oppressed Jews in exile. But the presence of G-d was what they yearned for and sought throughout.  The lighting of the Chanukah Menorah in each and every Jewish home for the 8 days of the holiday brought that message into each and every Jewish home spread across the globe.

Today, we have returned to our land and are once again independent, for the first time since those ancient Maccabees.  We can appreciate both miracles — the miracle of G-d’s presence and the miracle of victory.  The words of the ancient prayer that we recite on Chanukah is especially meaningful to us — thanking  G-d for the victory of the weak against the mighty and the small in number against the massive army.  Our very existence in Israel is an ongoing miracle of the Chanukah variety, as we defend ourselves against the massive nations and armies that surround us.

As I write this newsletter, we have just learned that the IDF has launched a military campaign to identify and destroy a series of tunnels along Israel’s northern border that have been dug by Hezbollah to enable them to invade Israel and wreak terror and destruction.  We must constantly be vigilant against ongoing threats to our lives and our very existence as a nation. 

But as we are witness as well as participants in the growth and development of this land, of Jerusalem in all its splendor, in the growing communities of Judea and Samaria, the Biblical heartland, including hundreds of centers for Bible study and synagogues throughout the Land, we can see G-d’s presence amongst us and thank Him daily for returning us to our land and to the center of His presence. We have come home.

4 thoughts on “The Meaning of Chanukah – Then and Now”

  1. I share your enthusiastic and deeply felt love of our Jewish people and commitment to the survival and continuing success of Israel. It is always interesting and illuminating to read your articles.
    Happy Chanukah to you and your family.

  2. Shalom! We will observe the Chanukah celebration on Saturday evening. Would the eve of Saturday be day 7 or day 8, since a day begins in the evening.Therefore would the 1st day of Hanukkah be Saturday night or Sunday night?

    Also, we were taught that the 8 days of the menorah’s oil lasting for 8 days instead of just one day is a myth?

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