Is Chanukah unique because we eat latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (jelly donuts) and play with dreidels (spinning tops)? The real uniqueness is our victory celebration over an enemy that didn’t actually want to kill us!
The story of Chanukah takes place during the Second Temple period (approx. 200 BCE), when the Syrian-Greeks occupied the Land of Israel. In contrast to most enemies of the Jewish people, the Syrian-Greeks essentially had no interest in murdering Jews. Rather, they wanted the Jewish people to adopt the Greek religion and way of life.
I guess you could say that the Syrian-Greeks desired death by assimilation for the Jewish people. Jewish practice was officially against the law. Torah study, circumcision and even resting on the Sabbath were all punishable by death.
As the saying goes with regards to all Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!” Chanukah is no different. The primary victory was apparently the military victory of the small Jewish army, known as the Maccabees, over the huge and well-armed army of the Syrian-Greeks. When the battle was over, the Maccabees made their way to the Temple Mount (as did the “Maccabees” of the Six Day War). What they found, however, was a desecrated and defiled sanctuary.
In order to formally rededicate the Temple, the Maccabees had to light the Menorah. But to do so, they had to overcome another obstacle: They had to find pure olive oil that had been certified by a High Priest. And in what was yet another miracle, they did! They managed to find a single flask of certified oil!
On to the next miracle: The small flask of oil that contained enough oil to burn for only one day burned for eight days! The eight-day holiday of Chanukah was born!
The Only Miracle that Must be Publicized
In order to commemorate these miracles, Jews light the menorah, often called a chanukiya, on each night of Chanukah and recite the accompanying blessings. These menorahs are generally lit at the entrances of the home or at a window that faces the public thoroughfare in order to better publicize the miracles of Chanukah. Indeed, with minor exception, the miracle of Chanukah is the only miracle that we are obligated to publicize! It is commendable to remain alongside the candles for at least 30 minutes after lighting, studying Torah, singing songs and talking about the Chanukah story. Gifts are often given to children at this time.
A Deeper Understanding
Let’s take a deeper look into the miracle of Chanukah. What was it about the events of Chanukah that inspired our sages to institute a holiday in its honor? The answer is that Chanukah is different from all other holidays. It is the only holiday that truly commemorates a spiritual victory, not a physical one. If the Syrian Greeks would have simply demanded that the Jewish people paint their homes pink with blue polka-dots, that would have have been one thing. But to demand that the Jewish people dispose with their Torah and religion was truly another!
The oil that was miraculously found and then burned for eight days was nothing less than a Divine wink that a battle for religious freedom is a battle that’s worth it. Many things in life, most things in fact, are not worth fighting for. In most of life’s battles we should usually compromise for the sake of keeping the peace. But when it comes to tradition, especially Torah tradition, compromise and concessions are not an option.
Chanukah is indeed different. They did not try to kill us, they tried to assimilate us. And the Maccabees would have none of it.
The fact that a flame was the center of attention makes Chanukah the spiritual holiday that it is. This is because a flame flickers and rises, which represents the soul of all mankind that ‘flickers’ in its desire to rise higher and get closer to God.
Presents, sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) and latkes (potato pancakes) are nice traditions, but don’t let the eight days of Chanukah slip by without recognizing them for the spiritual focus and victory that they are! Yes, and publicize it!
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