The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah 5784 (in the Christian calendar 2023) begins tonight and will end eight days from now at sundown on December 15.
Growing up in New York City, I was inevitably aware of all the major Jewish holidays. (When I was in kindergarten in a New York public school in 1954, we had a chalk menorah on the blackboard and used to illuminate in chalk one of its “lights” each day.) Hanukkah of course, is not, as such, a major Jewish holiday. It is not prescribed in the Torah, like the « pilgrimage » feasts of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot and the autumn « high holy days » of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Moreover, the historical event on which Hanukkah is based is not even included in the Jewish biblical canon – although it is found in the Catholic Old Testament in the two Books of Maccabees, which recount the sad story of the suffering inflicted upon the people of Israel by their secularizing persecutors and the heroic history of resistance by a minority of Jews led by Judas Maccabeus and his priestly Hasmonean dynasty, who defeated the Gentiles, reconquered the Jerusalem Temple which had been desecrated, and festively rededicated it for sacrificial worship on the 25th of Kislev (December 14, 164 B.C.)
Famously, Jewish tradition has amplified the account in Maccabees with the story of how, when they sought to light the Temple’s the seven-branch candelabrum (menorah), they found just a one-day supply of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, that one-day supply burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under ritually pure conditions. Thus, the nightly lighting of the special Hanukkah menorah – one lamp or candle on the first night, two on the second, etc., until all eight lights have been lit.
Hence, however major or minor the holiday, Hanukkah has been a part of the Jewish calendar for over two millennia. Jesus certainly celebrated Hanukkah, for The Gospel of John – the New Testament book most attuned to the Jewish liturgical calendar – specifically mentions both the festival and his presence: The feat of the Dedication was then taking place in Jerusalem. It was winter. And Jesus walked about in the temple area on the Portico of Solomon (John 10:22-23). It was during that celebration of Hanukkah that Jesus gave his famous “Good Shepherd” discourse.
Even beyond religious observance Hanukkah’s popularity seems deeply rooted. A 1960s radical friend of mine once told me how his family was socialist, religiously non-observant, and so celebrated no Jewish holidays – with the one exception of Hanukkah, which his socialist father considered a people’s holiday.
It does seem rather obvious that in the 20th-century Hanukkah became as big as it is in the U.S. as a kind of Jewish alternative to the overwhelmingly omnipresent Christmas holiday. Thus, the tradition of giving Hanukkah geld to children could easily evolve into full-scale gift-giving analogous to Christmas.
But something even more important happened in the 20th century – the restoration of Israel as a Jewish state after 19 centuries of dispossession and lost sovereignty. The restoration of Israel and the repeated challenges to Israel’s existence and the Jewish people’s survival in their land has also obviously given renewed salience to Hanukkah which originated, after all, as a recollection vof the last sustained experience of Jewish independence until 1948. For modern Israel, it undoubtedly meets the natural need for a nationalist holiday. If 19th and 20th-century Socialists could interpret Hanukkah primarily as a « people’s holiday » rather than a religious one, post-independence Israelis could likewise interpret it primarily as a patriotic holiday. (It was, thus, no accident that Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, presented U.S. President Harry Truman a Hanukkah menorah.)
I’ve been told that pre-modern rabbis often downplayed the military and nationalistic dimensions of the holiday, and that the emphasis on the story of the miraculous oil may have served as an alternative – more edifyingly « spiritual » – emphasis (a particularly practical approach, perhaps, during the long centuries of dangerous exile under unfriendly Gentile rulers). With the 20th-century restoration of Israel as a Jewish state, the holiday’s original historical significance has, naturally enough, undergone a revival, and both the Jewish theme of national liberation and the universal theme of cultural and religious freedom have moved to center stage. Religiously, this beautiful patriotic holiday, » rooted in Israel’s struggle against a secularizing political establishment, also simultaneously celebrates God’s miraculously abiding presence among his people.
This year, the recent terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas and the widespread increase in expressions of antisemitism all around the world (including sadly in the U.S.), highlight the relevance of Hanukkah for Israel, for Jews everywhere, and for all people of good will who support Jews and Israel against contemporary enemies every bit as implacable as Antiochus IV.
Religiously, God’s intervention in history to save his people and God’s abiding presence with his people (signified by the Temple and, more immediately, by the miracle of the oil) are Hanukkah themes which can also resonate with the Christmas story. For the Incarnation is, after all, the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to save his people, which he does by becoming present among us in his Son’s humanity. And like the miracle of the oil, the Incarnation has a modest, ordinary appearance.
Just as the Hanukkah story contrasts the monstrous pomposity of the Hellenistic king and his cosmopolitan collaborators with the more powerful simplicity of God’s powerful will to save his people, so too the Christmas story contrasts the pretentiously false power of pagan emperors, kings, and governors (Augustus, Herod, Quirinius) with the divine power of the Word-made-flesh, in whom God’s great visitation of the world he created continues. Meanwhile, the Hanukkah story celebrates the reality that despite human and earthly obstacles, the divine presence, symbolized by the long-burning oil, continues in Israel, for the gifts and call of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:29).