(Friday, December 11) we light the first candle of Hanukkah. For my non-Jewish readers, I
will explain briefly. About 2200 years ago, the Seleucid king Antiochus
IV Epiphanes (also known as Epimanes – "the Madman") of Syria ruled
what had been the eastern part of Alexander the Great’s vast empire, which
included 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 and ordered the Jews to sacrifice to it. Not just any
sacrifice either, but to sacrifice pigs. Not surprisingly, 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 when the Jews came to
re-dedicate the Temple (Hanukkah
means "re-dedication"), they found that all but one of the jars of
olive oil used to kindle the Eternal Flame which burned before the Holy
of Holies had been broken open and defiled. Only one small jar remained
with its seal – the seal of the High Priest – unbroken. Enough oil only
for one day. But by a miracle, the oil lasted for eight
days, enough time for fresh oil to be prepared in conditions of ritual
purity. It is this miracle that we celebrate at Hanukkah. This is the
reason why tonight and for the next seven nights, we light candles in the special nine-branched menorah known as a chanukiyah – one candle on the first evening, two on the second, three on the third – and so on. The ninth branch holds the shammash
– an extra candle used for kindling the others and for illumination,
since it is forbidden to put the eight candles to any use, they are
there only to be looked at, as a reminder of the miracle.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Hanukkah.
But what would a Jewish festival be without its special food? Just as we eat matza at Pessach, Hamentaschen at Purim, apples dipped in honey at Rosh Hashana – at Hanukkah, we have latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (donuts). Why? Because they are fried in oil and thus we remember the miracle of the oil. I must admit, the sufganiyot were something I discovered only when I came on aliyah to Israel, 35 years ago. In England, we celebrated Hanukkah with latkes. Either way, the calorie count is similar – which is to say, very, very high. For years, I was sure that there were only 500 calories in each sufganiyah. The other day, to my consternation, I heard there are actually 700 (gasp!).
Oh – what the hell…what’s a couple of hundred more calories between friends?
Of course, it is
possible to buy (or make) oven-baked donuts, thus avoiding the oil. But
that would be missing the point, wouldn’t it? And, of course, they
aren’t nearly so tasty…
is also the time for various children’s song festivals, and for a host
of special children’s shows, much like the Christmas pantomimes popular
in the England of my childhood. Hanukkah 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.
too, is one of the messages of Hanukkah. 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 so often 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.
Hanukkah Sameach to you all.
חג אורים שמח