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. But that’s not what we are celebrating 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, they found that the Greeks had desecrated the oil used for the Menorah that burned before the Sanctuary in the Temple. 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. The festival is called “Chanucah” (the “ch” is guttural, as in “Bach” or “Loch Ness”), meaning “Dedication”, because the Temple, which had been used for pagan worship by the Greeks, who set up a statue of Zeus there, had to be purified, reconsecrated 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. 😉 So every time you eat a doughnut (which are usually filled with jam or dolce de leche), you are consuming about 500 calories. In fact, when I go to my favourite coffee-shop and buy a doughnut, I usually just point and say: “Bring me some calories.”
More about the Feast of Lights tomorrow – but just a final thought for today. Chanucah 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. 😉
Happy Chanucah, everyone.