Tonight is the first night of Chanucah, the Feast of Lights, when we remember how the Maccabees and their tiny army took on the might of the Greek Empire – and won.
About 2,200 years ago, the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (also known as Epimanes – “the Madman”) ruled what had been the eastern part of Alexander the Great’s vast empire, including the Land of Israel or Judaea. Antiochus tried to impose the worship of the Greek gods on the Jews and forbade the practice of Judaism. Eventually, he committed the ultimate outrage and had a statue of the Greek god Zeus set up in the Sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem, to which the Jews were ordered to sacrifice. Not just any sacrifice either, but – adding insult to injury – to sacrifice pigs. It is hardly surprising then, that the Jews revolted, led by the priest Matityahu (Mattathias) and his five sons, Yochanan, Shimon, Eleazer, Yonatan and Yehuda (known as the Maccabee, or “Hammer”). Against all odds, the rebellion was successful and the Syrian-Greeks were driven out of Jerusalem.
But it isn’t the military victory, miraculous though it was, which we celebrate when we light the Chanucah candles – one candle on the first night, two on the second, three on the third, and so on. We are celebrating the Miracle of the Oil. When the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem from the hands of the occupying Greek army, their first task was to purify and reconsecrate the Temple. Alas, they found that the Greeks had desecrated the oil used for the Menorah that burned, day and night, before the Sanctuary. Only one flask of pure olive oil which still bore the unbroken seal of the High Priest was found, and that was sufficient for one day only. But, miraculously, it lasted for eight days, until fresh oil could be obtained. This is the true Miracle which we celebrate and we call the festival “Chanucah” (חנוכה), meaning “Dedication”, because the Temple, having been used for pagan worship by the Greeks, had to be purified and rededicated to God.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, nearly every Jewish holiday has its own particular food associated with it. It is this Miracle of the Oil that gave rise to the Chanucah custom of eating foods cooked in oil. In Europe (certainly in the UK, where I grew up), we used to eat potato pancakes (latkes), made by grating potatoes and onions (and sometimes carrots also), seasoning them with salt and pepper, adding eggs and some flour for binding and then frying them in oil. It was only after we made aliyah that I discovered the Israeli preference for sweet doughnuts fried in oil. To tell the truth, before that, I had had no idea that doughnuts were fried! The doughnuts I used to eat in England were not at all greasy so I never imagined they were anything other than baked – that’s if I gave any thought at all as to how they were prepared. In Israel, however, you are left in no doubt as to the method of preparation. I suspect this is the origin of their Hebrew name – sufganiyot (סופגניות) – which to me implies a combination of two words: safug (ספוג) meaning “saturated” or “soaked” (ie. with oil), and metugan (מתוגן) meaning “fried”. To make matters even worse, we like to decorate them with chocolate icing and various other “toppings”. So every time you eat a doughnut (which are, in addition, usually filled with jam or dolce de leche), you are consuming between 500-700 calories. In fact, whenever I go to my favourite coffee-shop and buy a doughnut, I usually just point and say: “Bring me some calories.”
Chanucah certainly bears out the humorous claim that Jewish holidays can usually be summed up in three sentences: They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s go eat.
Another Chanucah tradition is the giving of Chanucah gelt or דמי חנוכה (d’mei Chanucah) to children. There are different theories as to how this custom originated. One is that because of the linguistic connection between the Hebrew words “Chanucah”(חנוכה) and “Chinuch” (חינוך) meaning “education”, it became customary during the late Middle Ages in Europe (especially in the Eastern European Jewish communities) to give the children money which they would then give to the local Jewish teacher as a gift at Chanucah, to show their appreciation for the education he was imparting to them. As time went by, it became customary to give money to the children for themselves, to encourage them to study – a bribe, if you will ;-). Nowadays, at least in orthodox Jewish homes, the children are encouraged to donate their Chanucah gelt to charity, to teach them about the importance of giving to those in need.
In the early 20th century, it became customary to give silver and gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins instead, although many families continue to present their children with real money. However, the proximity of Chanucah to Christmas and the increasing commercialisation of the latter, has led to the spread of the custom of giving increasingly lavish gifts. Alas, this commercialisation has affected many of our festivals – and I’ve heard many Christians making the same complaint about Christmas and Easter. Maybe the worldwide recession will force us to cut back our rampant consumerism and, instead, consider the real meaning behind Chanucah (and Christmas too). Every cloud, after all, has a silver lining – at least, that’s what they say.
In Israel, Chanucah is also the time for various children’s song festivals, such as the popular “Festigal” – a combination of song contest and musical – and for a host of special children’s shows, much like the Christmas pantomimes popular in the England of my childhood, no doubt because of the need to keep the young ones amused during the extended school vacation.
Chanucah also has its special songs. One of my favourites is one which has, as its chorus, the words (in free translation): “We have come to banish the dark; In our hands – light and fire. Each of us is a little candle, And all of us together – a mighty light. Away with you, darkness; Get you gone, night. Give way, to the Light.”
That, too, is one of the messages of Chanucah. Matityahu and his sons, together with a mere handful of followers, stood up to a mighty empire. In time, they were joined by more and more but still, they were the few against the many – just as the Jewish People have always been. But each one held up a tiny candle in the dark and together, they became a mighty beacon of light. Each of us, standing alone, for what is right and just, has it in us to be a tiny candle in the darkness of ignorance and greed and cruelty which surrounds us. What we do matters, no matter how small our contribution. But together, we can be a mighty light, a great force which can drive out the dark.
Here is the song, in a somewhat surprising synthesis of the original tune, with Mizrachi (Oriental and North African Jewish) and even Greek bouzouki elements. Ironic? Maybe. But we Jews have always known that it is unnecessary to throw out the baby with the bathwater!
At any rate, this remix beautifully symbolises, in a nutshell, the way Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews have come together in the modern State of Israel, to rebuild the Jewish State in our ancient homeland and that the Jewish People is One.
Chag Urim Sameach (חג אורים שמח – A Happy Feast of Lights) to you all.