As a general rule, the joyous festivals that serve as an intrinsic part of the Jewish calendar have two key elements – a historical element and an agricultural element.
In fact, from the perspective of the Torah, it tends to be the agricultural element – which is often downplayed in the era of exile and its accompanying Diaspora – that is the dominant theme of the biblically ordained chagim.
However, the rabbinically-inspired festival of Chanukah lacks such a duality. Its theme is basically history – no ifs, no buts. And in truth it is the story of our history not only at the time that the basic story happened, but of all of the time since as well.
Of course the original festival of Chanukah occurred not in the Diaspora or in a time of exile, but in our holy land itself, during the period of the Second Temple. Nevertheless, its theme is one that sits well with the history of Jews in the Diaspora throughout the ensuing two millennia.
In a nutshell: the enemy stood up to destroy the fundamentals of Jewish life and the Temple, which was its sacred heart – and we prevailed against all odds.
And what is the response of Jewry throughout the ages to such a saga? Not to withdraw out of the limelight into our homes, thereby avoiding the possibility of a repeat saga, but to become a light unto the nations. Not to celebrate inside where no one can see, but deliberately and purposefully to light the candles at the doorway or window – so all who pass by will know what we are doing and hopefully understand why.
Yet although things may have changed in recent times – Jewish pride now dictates that all and sundry may and should see and understand our religious practices – this was certainly not always the case. Whether for reasons of fear or embarrassment, it was not customary in earlier eras to go out of one’s way to publicise Jewish affiliations and practices. It is not that long ago that even in Australia one did not openly wear a kippah in the street. But throughout history, the placement of the chanukiah was always – at least in a small way – an exception to the desire to keep our religious affiliation private – representing the significance of the holiday specifically defined as intended “l’pirsumei nisa” – for publicising the miracle.
Today the chanukiyot in public places are legion. Across the world, wherever Jews live, they stand in public squares, in malls and in significant buildings representing the institutions of government and those of commerce. Admittedly when this custom of public placement of giant menorot was initiated by Chabad in America during the 1980s, there was debate as to the propriety of such placement of a religious symbol. And not all that debate related to the peculiarly American constitutional problem banning certain uses of government or public property for the advancement of religion. There were also individuals and organisations within the Jewish community itself who sought to downplay such ostentatious and public representations of Jewishness. Fortunately, those in favour of public celebration triumphed.
And so it should be. For the underlying theme of the struggle of the Maccabees was the need to rekindle Jewish pride, endangered by a dominant social ethos opposed to the continuation of Judaism. The Seleucids, influenced by Greek culture and its ethos, sought not the physical destruction of Jewry but its assimilation into the dominant culture of the time. The evidence of our triumph is the very fact that we take the opposite approach – standing up to the forces of assimilation by openly displaying our difference. And there are few now who object to the menorah – our national symbol – taking its rightful place in our city squares next to the symbols of the dominant culture of the society in which we live.
Regrettably today there are Jews who celebrate Christmas at this time (even in Tel Aviv where as I have frequently seen, there is sadly no shortage of establishments displaying Christmas symbols). Nevertheless, as is evidenced by such celebrations as “Chanukah in the Park”, which fortunately this year post-COVID lockdowns is back on the agenda, even so many of those with less formal religious tendencies in their personal lives will choose openly between Chanukah and the more dominantly celebrated festival of Christmas – with the celebration of Chanukah becoming the most obvious aspect of the difference between “us” and “them” at this time of the calendar year. And in so doing many will return home from such public celebrations with an eight-branched menorah. What they may not realise when lighting that at home is that they are celebrating the festival in the manner halachically defined as “mehadrin min hamehadrin” – the highest level of practice. Indeed albeit it may at times be hidden by circumstances and situations, the light of the Jewish soul cannot be extinguished and will shine again when the opportunity arises.
Someone once defined the origins of a Jewish holiday as: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” And so Chanukah also has its well-known associated food rituals – items such as doughnuts and latkes cooked in oil (reminiscent of the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days).
Symbolic and ritual foods on any holiday are the most significant way of allowing us to personally ingest the ethos of the day so that it becomes part and parcel of our very being.
But even leaving aside such philosophical connotations, they also allow us to enjoy the holiday in a very personal way – perhaps on this occasion balancing out our other duties to publicise the miracle to others.
Let us hope that worldwide we all have a peaceful and enjoyable Chanukah.
Shabbat shalom, Chanukah sameach.
Yossi Aron OAM is The AJN’s religious affairs editor.