Hanukkah: A light of many meanings
Families and communities gather on these darkest evenings of the year to light candles, sing holiday songs and enjoy meals based on potato pancakes. The simple ritual observances of Hanukkah reaffirm connections to tradition. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the holiday remind Jewish people of their heritage. The story of the holiday, however, is not nearly as straightforward as its rituals. Unique among the holidays of the Jewish people until the modern era, Hanukkah post-dates Hebrew Scriptures, and its meaning is still up for debate.
For some, celebrating the Maccabees' successful resistance to an oppressor is the most meaningful aspect of the Hanukkah story. Lighting the Hanukkah candles recalls a moment when ancestors of today's Jewish people took history into their own hands and brought the powerful Seleucid empire to its knees. Indeed, historians trace Hanukkah's origins to the second century before the common era, when Antiochus IV occupied the Judean capital, Jerusalem. Although Judea had already been under the thumb of Greece for over 150 years, Antiochus made the regime much more severe, imposing restrictions on the study of scripture and practice of Judaism and ultimately requiring the people to engage in idol worship. While some complied with Antiochus' command, a group of priests resisted. Their passion, which spiraled into full rebellion against the Greeks, eventually succeeded against all odds. After banishing the Greeks, the Hasmoneans — or Maccabees — cleaned and purified the Temple before declaring an eight-day festival of dedication to celebrate their victory. They called it "Hanukkah," after the Hebrew word that means dedication.
As the centuries passed, however, Hanukkah's focus on resistance and military victory became problematic. It is one thing for a people to celebrate a revolution when they live autonomously. What happens when they are living in a Roman province or as a minority in Sassanian Persia? By the fourth century C.E., the leaders of the Jewish community — no longer princes and priests, but rabbis — shifted the focus of Hanukkah from national to religious. They introduced discussions of the "miracle of Hanukkah": When the Maccabees entered the temple and washed it down, they found one small jar of pure olive oil that contained only enough oil for one day. With the oil they had, they lit the temple's menorah lamp, whose flame symbolizes God's presence. A miracle happened, and the oil lasted for eight days. This approach to the holiday transformed Hanukkah into a celebration of of miracles and God's role in history.
Even this meaning, however, presented challenges over time. It is easy for a people to celebrate God's involvement in history when times are good. It is much more challenging to do so during protracted periods of persecution. Beginning with the Crusades of the 11th century, European Jews suffered centuries of hardship, including discriminatory laws, accusations of ritual murder, blame for the Plague, brutal pogroms and heartless expulsions. So, by the 19th century, rabbis in Eastern Europe were preaching a very different Hanukkah, focusing on the significance of the candles, rather than on their history. "A little candle sheds much light," taught the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And in early 20th-century Palestine, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook encouraged his followers to gaze at the candles and understand that each one represents the unique light that burns inside the soul. That passion must be shared in such a way that it illuminates the world.
Although the spiritual possibilities in Hanukkah helped the holiday return to relevance, Hanukkah also made its way into mainstream American society in another important way, best illustrated by the classic Peter, Paul and Mary song, "Light One Candle." The singers presented lighting Hanukkah candles as an opportunity for national introspection. The lights symbolize justice, integrity and the pursuit of peace. They inspire thought about which wars are worth fighting, and for what reasons, and reflection on what holds society together. The Hanukkah candles call for rededication to the ideals and aspirations that shape American democracy. Many Jewish Americans to this day hold this universal message front and center as they contemplate the meaning of Hanukkah.
For eight nights beginning on Dec. 12, Hanukkah lamps will appear in the windows of Jewish homes across the Berkshires and all over the world. Sometimes a little light carries a great deal of meaning.
Rabbi David Weiner is the spiritual leader at Knesset Israel in Pittsfield. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.