The True Miracle of Chanukah

Arliene Botnick

by Arliene Botnick, November 28, 2018

As we begin to celebrate Chanukah, we pay little attention to the fact that Chanukah has historically been considered a minor holiday.

Unlike the major Yom Tovs which begin with the lighting of candles (as we do on Shabbat), and which have the same work restrictions as Shabbat, and on which we attend special services, Chanukah has none of the expected rituals or rites.

We do not stay off work or school for Chanukah. No “Shabbat”- like candles are lit specifically for Chanukah. And there are no special services that demand our presence. Of course, we do light candles nightly for 8 nights to celebrate this holiday, and we do have Chanukah parties and family celebrations and Chanukah is probably one the most celebrated of our holidays, but it is only a minor one religiously.

As a matter of fact, it is not even found in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), rather its origins are in the 1st and 2nd Book of Maccabees in a set of works called the Apocrypha (The Hidden Works). There was even a time not so long ago that traditional of communities didn’t even celebrate Chanukah, since a part of its story tells not only of a battle between the Maccabees and the Seleucids, but it was also somewhat of a civil war between the Jewish Hellenizers (the Jews who were quite willing to assimilate into the dominant Greek culture) and the Maccabees who wanted to remain dedicated to their unique Jewish identity. Perhaps the Books of the Maccabees were left out of the Tanach because they tell of Jewish infighting, or perhaps they were omitted because they were a late addition (168 – 165 BCE) to our Canon.

Yet today, Chanukah is a major event in our Jewish lives. We regale our children with the story of miraculous oil that burned for 8 days. But even that story is not found in the Books of the Maccabees. The oil miracle story doesn’t appear until some 500 years later in the Talmud. In the Book of Maccabees, it appears that we celebrate this holiday for 8 days in lieu of the 8-day holiday of Sukkot that was missed because of the war against the Seleucids.

So, here we have a holiday that has at least some roots in a Jewish civil war, whose oil miracle story may not be true, and still we will and should celebrate it.

The true miracle that we should understand from this holiday is the miracle of religious freedom, that as easy as it might have been then for all Judeans to assimilate, for all to cease celebrating the Shabbat, cease the ritual of circumcision, cease speaking Hebrew, cease obeying dietary laws, some stood strong and dedicated to the covenant they had made with God.

I would hope that this holiday teaches us that all peoples have a right to believe and celebrate as they see fit, and that no one group should dominate over another. No one group should deny any other group its right to pray (or not pray) celebrate (or not celebrate) as they believe.

As we light our Chanukiah, we will remember what the holiday has become, a celebration of freedom, of the right of all peoples to live as free people. In this, the darkest time of the year, let’s light our Chanukiot and truly bring the light of God’s presence into our homes.

Chag Sameach!

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