By Rabbi Jeffrey Schesnol
All Jewish holidays have changed over the centuries. Their histories reflect the changes in beliefs, lifestyle, and socio-economic-political circumstances of the Jewish people. Originally, Hanukkah, which means dedication, was only a Maccabean holiday to celebrate the defeat of their Seleucid overlords and reclaimed the sacred Jerusalem temple and their rededication of it.
Maccabean independence alienated the Pharisees by the Maccabean “chutzpedic” claim to be high priests and kings and celebrated their own military power and victories. This did not ingratiate them to the rabbis who responded by rejecting the military victory celebration and they deemphasized the nationalistic nature of the holiday in favor of the miracle of the oil story.
The story of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days koshered the holiday. The rabbis could not eradicate the peoples’ enjoyment of the winter solstice aspect of lighting fires during the darkest days of the year.
Hanukkah is the only significant holiday without a Talmud tractate. It requires no abstinence from work, whereas work is not permitted on Sukkot, for example, which is largely ignored by many Jews despite its great traditional importance as one of the three pilgrimage holidays mentioned in the Torah.
Hanukkah has no place in the liturgy of the synagogue. It is a secondary holiday primarily confined to the home, and even the legend concerning the miracle of the oil was recognized as such by the rabbis who created this story to give the holiday religious significance.
Hanukkah is an interesting example of the evolution of a Jewish holiday in response to the conditions of the Jewish experience. Only in the lifetimes of our grandparents, parents, and ourselves have we seen Hanukkah transformed from a minor holiday into a major festival. Its rise to prominence has little to do with its traditional meaning of celebrating the Hasmonean victory by making the mode of observance, the lighting of candles, popular for reasons entirely external to itself. Hanukkah’s status today as a major Jewish holiday is a modern phenomenon in response to Christmas excess.
What propelled Hanukkah from relative obscurity to its position as one of the three great holidays of our current Jewish calendar along with the high holidays in Passover, was America. The American Jewish experience worked on Hanukkah as it has on all holidays and transformed it in the image of the other great American winter festival, Christmas. Christmas itself is the result of contemporary American forces.
Traditionally, Easter is a far more significant Christian holiday, celebrating the central theological event of the religion, the resurrection. Christmas was a minor holiday until American commercial ingenuity, including Irving Berlin (White Christmas,) came along to transform it into the American holiday. Thank you, Coca-Cola, for that wonderful image of Santa alongside the Christmas tree in the typical American living room.
The centrality of Christmas in American secular culture could not help but affect Hanukkah, falling as it does almost simultaneous (usually) in mid or late December, except this year. It was inevitable that Hanukkah was to take on some of the importance of Christmas; although to be forthright and fair, Hanukkah cannot truly “compete” with Christmas; Christmas has the advantage of being able to draw upon centuries of the world’s finest music and art as well as the creative talents of countless writers who have embellished the basic non-theological themes of the holiday with infinite variety and richness. We must also consider that billions of dollars have been spent by advertisers promoting Christmas, whereas the budget for Hanukkah while larger than ever, remains microscopic by comparison.
Whatever Hanukkah’s limitations as a Jewish version of a mid-winter holiday of gift-giving and good cheer, it serves as an opportunity for Jews to affirm and celebrate their Jewish identity at precisely the time when it is most in danger of being overwhelmed by the assimilationist power of American culture.
This is the hidden meaning of Hanukkah for American Jews. We need to remember that Hanukkah is a celebration of human potential, integrity and hope. The success of the Maccabee’s revolution was not due to pious pleas or tearful entreaties, but by decisive action, expert planning and determination. Hanukkah should be viewed as an opportunity to celebrate the daring of ancient and modern-day heroes of courage and bravery.
Rabbi Jeffrey Schesnol is the ceremonial and spiritual leader of Or Adam Congregation for Humanistic Judaism and associate director of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society.