Record Staff Writer
The following is the first part of a three-part series: The History of Holiday Traditions.
In her window stands a menorah, a candelabrum of sorts also called a hanukkiyah. Eight candles burn brightly through the curtains, winking at the dark world outside.
As the days have gotten shorter and winter breathes her chilly breath on the world, one of the most well known Jewish holidays has begun.
It’s a term and holiday most have at least heard of, but how many really know the history or traditions of the Jewish Festival of Lights?
Hanukkah is not actually mentioned in the Bible, but it comes from the writings of rabbis passed down through histories. And even from one family to another, the traditions do not vary as much as is sometimes seen with other holidays, explained a member of the Jewish community who wished to remain unnamed.
Jane Doe explained that on each of eight nights, a candle is lit. There is a shammash — a “servant” candle — that stands above the rest and is used to light each day’s candle.
Although Doe claimed not to be an expert on the holiday, she did have some stellar resources for uncovering the history behind Hanukkah.
So where did the holiday originate? Although it is not directly written in the Old Testament, part of the miracle celebrated on Hanukkah comes from the book of Maccabees.
After King Antiochus Epiphanes forbid all Jewish practices in 167 B.C., a priest named Mattathias, outraged, fled with his five sons to the mountains to start a rebellion. Although they were outnumbered and outgunned (so to speak), Mattathias’ son, Judah the Maccabee, defeated Antiochus.
This is the first miracle, and according to Doe, the one that should be focused on the most.
However, there is a second aspect to the miracle. This one came about in later writings, but is more prevalent in the minds of people today. It’s the miracle of the oil.
After the Maccabees retook the temple, they rededicated it with oil. However, the one cruse of oil was only enough to burn for one day.
It burned for eight.
“Oil was the bringing of the light,” explained Doe. “Which is what Judaism is supposed to be about — bringing the light of the knowledge of the one true God.”
According to American Rabbi Michael Strassfeld’s writings in “The Jewish Holidays,” however, Hanukkah does not last eight days because of the oil. It actually lasts eight days because it is based off the holiday of Sukkot, a holiday the Maccabees could not celebrate while in the mountains.
Lighting the candles is one of the more visual traditions, but, as is true with most holidays in any religion, there are many different traditions attached to Hanukkah.
One popular pastime is the playing of games, particularly Dreidel.
A gambling game, Dreidel uses a four-sided spinning top labeled with letters representing the phrase Nes gadol hayah sham: a great miracle happened there. The letters — nun, gimel, he and shin — mean do nothing, take the main pile, take half the main pile and give half of your pile.
Children originally used it as a cover. At a time when they would gather illegally to study Torah, children would pretend to be playing a game when authorities passed. Rabbis originally didn’t like the idea of them playing a gambling game, but because of the message let it remain a tradition.
Another tradition is storytelling. A popular story comes from the Book of Judith within the Apocrypha (a collection of Jewish writings between 200 B.C. and 200 C.E.)
Desired by a Syrian general, Judith made the man a feast including many cheeses, which led to the general drinking a lot of wine. When he passed out, Judith beheaded him and the head was used as a banner when the Jews led an attack. The Syrians fled.
Besides being a tradition in itself, this story also brought about two other observances. For one, it instilled the importance of women in celebrating Hanukkah; so many maintain that women should not work while the candles are lit.
The other aspect was the focus on cheese, starting a custom of eating cheese on Hanukkah, especially in the form of latkes.
Latkes (a pancake-like food) have since been made from potatoes — or other vegetables to mix things up, Doe said. But the primary concept behind latkes does not depend on what they are made from. It is all about frying them because that uses oil: a reminder of the oil that burned for eight days.
According to Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a lot of the traditions don’t necessarily have specific meanings or origins so much as holding an overall theme and message.
“Some symbols are so primary that purported ‘meanings’ can only prove inadequate,” he wrote as commentary in Strassfeld’s “The Jewish Holidays.” “Light in the dead of winter, victory when it had seemed improbable, more than enough when there had been far too little, few against many, the freedom to be — these are the essence, and the stories built around them only so much adornment — and therefore alterable.”
The primary focus of Hanukkah is light. It is a celebration of a historical battle overcoming great odds, and also the remembrance of various miracles. But the real focus is on light in the midst of darkness.
“By lighting the menorah, we ignite the flame in our souls, the spark that cannot be extinguished, that will burn not for eight days but for eternity,” Strassfeld wrote. “We place the menorah in our windows to be visible to those passing by, just as our inner light must shine against the darkness of evil and indifference and must kindle the spirits of our fellow humans. The menorah reminds us of the miracle that no matter how dark life may be, there remains a source of light deep inside us.”
Chag Chanukah sameach: A happy Hanukkah.
For more information on Hanukkah, check out Strassfeld’s “The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary,” or “The Family Treasury of Jewish Holidays,” by Rabbi Malka Drucker.