Hanukkah is NOT the Jewish Christmas!
Hanukkah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays because of its proximity to Christmas - in some years. (Jewish holidays do not have fixed dates on the English calendar because Judaism is based on a lunar calendar which is intercalated. See below.*) Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.
The story of Hanukkah is rooted in the triumphs of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered most of the Middle East. Under his rule, he permitted the people to continue observing their own customs and religions. During his tenure, many Jews adopted the language and lifestyle of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America have assimilated into the secular American society.
Antiochus Epiphanes IV came to power a century later. He instituted policy which forbade the study of Torah and prohibited the practice of the Jewish religion. He placed a Hellenistic priest in the Temple and desecrated the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Mattathias, a priest of the Hasmonean family, and then his son Judah the Maccabee opposed Antiochus successfully. The Jews then entered Jerusalem and purified the Temple in 164 BCE. According to a story in the Talmud, (a collection of Jewish law and lore,) at the time of the re-dedication, there was only a one day supply of ritually pure oil for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Holy Temple.
It miraculously burned for eight days, the time necessary for the preparation of new oil. A great miracle happened there - Neis gadol hayah sham. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle (It is interesting to note that the emphasis of Hanukkah is upon the miracle of the oil, not the military victory - which was also a miracle. Think about it: a rag-tag bunch of untrained zealots defeated the best trained army in the world. The Hanukkah story does not even appear in the Hebrew Bible because the rabbis were determined to downplay the military aspect.)
The word Hanukkah means dedication. It was the first holiday which was added to the Jewish calendar. Until that time, only holidays mentioned in the Torah were observed: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot (Thanksgiving), Passover and Shavu'ot (The Feast of Weeks).
The one symbol that Hanukkah and Christmas share is light. Jews light a special eight branched menorah (candelabrum) called a hanukki-yah. One candle is added for each night of the holiday.
We are told that when Antiochus forbade the study of Torah, small groups of students continued to meet in secret to study together. They brought small tops with them in case one of the King's patrols found them.
They appeared to be just a group of guys gambling. This four-sided top is a dreidel. (Rhymes with cradle.) a value and Yiddish word associated with it: Nun = nischt (none), Gimmel = Gantz (All), Hey = halb (half) and Shin=shtel (put in 2 of whatever objects you are playing with: chocolate coins, M & M's, pennies, etc.) This game is probably where the custom of Hanukkah gelt (Hanukkah money) is derived. Gelt is the only traditional gift for Hanukkah. In honor of the miracle of the oil, we eat oil-laden treats. Jews who hail from Eastern Europe have the tradition of eating potato latkes (pancakes). Jews from Spain, Turkey, Greece etc., eat sufgani-yot - (doughnuts.) My family tries to have a different treat for each night of the holidays: - sweet potato latkes, cheese latkes, beignets, mozzarella sticks, stuffed French toast, fried apple slices, etc.
Many of us have gotten uncomfortable about how we greet each other. The simplest thing to say to your Jewish friends is Happy Hanukkah or Happy Holiday. Interestingly enough, the traditional Hebrew greeting: Chag Urim Same'ach - May you have a holiday filled with light and joy - is probably the most appropriate for both Jews and Christians as we share the symbol of light and prayer for joy. May we all serve as symbols of light, joy and peace.
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