I thought I would take a moment this holiday season and mention a few words about Chanukah. My family celebrates this holiday each year including lighting the nine candles, which for a family of 6 means a total of 54 flames on the last night, in a somewhat nerve wracking display as small children and a puppy take turns trying to set themselves and the house on fire. To most of the Mormon community this holiday remains a mystery and like Christmas, those portions of it that seems to get the most air time are probably the least important aspects of the Holiday. This is my humble attempt to explain what the holiday means to me and my family.
The holiday dates back to the 165 BCE successful revolt by the Jews led by the Maccabee priestly family, particularly Judah who took over for his father Mattathias. The Jews fought in tough guerrilla warfare against the Greek army of Antiochus IV. Antiochus had suppressed the Jewish religion and in addition to introducing many Hellenistic practices, had taken over the temple complex and was offering sacrifices to Zeus. After retaking the temple Judah cleansed it and rededicated it in a ceremony that lasted eight days. The word חנוכה chanukah means dedication. The simple summary of Chanukah then is a celebration of the dedication of the temple. It also is a time to reflect on the great power God has given his people to maintain their freedom and faith even when faced with far stronger enemies, and his ability to strengthen his people to meet the odds before them.
Some 600 years later in the Talmud, the story of a single cruse of oil that lasted for eight days to light the Menorah in the temple while more oil was refined, was recorded. This is almost certainly a later addition to the tale. The concept of an eight day dedication was already well established (2 Chronicles 29:17). Also added much later a German dice game using a four sided top was given association with the holiday. The letters on the sides are the Yiddish equivalents of their German counterparts, but in an effort to make a gambling game more spiritual, they were given new meanings to spell out the Hebrew phrase “A great miracle happened there”. Thus the dreidel has become, next to the nine branched menorah, the most well known symbol of the holiday. Today the game is played by children for chocolate coins called “gelt” which is Yiddish for money or gold. Also of note is the tradition that has developed remembering the miracle of the oil by eating as much deep fried food as possible, especially potato pancakes! And of course in an effort to keep up with Christian neighbors, the tradition of giving gifts to children was also introduced. These later symbols and additions have obscured the original story in the public mind to some extent. Additionally, because of the holiday's close proximity to Christmas, many have for political reasons elevated its status to that of a “Jewish Christmas” which is terribly inaccurate. Chanukah is a minor Holiday and is not recorded in the Hebrew bible. The only “religious” requirement is lighting a candle each night in rememberance. It is not as significant as Yom Kippur, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Shavuot, or Succoth. It's more like Simchat Torah or Tu B'Shvat in the scale of Jewish holidays but gets outclassed attention in the media for political reasons.
Avoiding distraction by these harmless modern impositions can allow one to find a holiday underneath that is ancient, spiritual and filled with meaning for a modern audience, especially one that believes in temples, their central role in communicating with God, and that has an appreciation of the sacred act of dedicating them as sacred space. The story of Chanukah is not found in the Hebrew Bible, but in the two books of Maccabees that are part of the Christian Apocrypha. 1 Maccabee was written in Hebrew by a Jewish author in first or second century BCE. The original Hebrew sources are lost and only Greek translations remain. This is part of why they remain unacceptable to Jews as part of official canon. After his success against the Greeks, Judah formed a new dynasty called the Hasmonian Dynasty which would eventually become a puppet of Rome. Stories of the glorious founding of this dynasty probably lost popularity due to the oppression of its successors. To Latter-day Saints the book of Maccabees is particularly interesting for its references to writing on “tables of brass” in 1 Maccabees 8:22, 14:17, 14:27 and 14:48 (notes a copy is laid up in the treasury). 2 Maccabee is an entirely different work, probably written originally in Greek and is an abridgement of the five volume works of Jason of Cyrene (2 Maccabees 2:23) now lost to time. It largely retells the story from a different perspective. Also of interest the name “Nephi” shows up in 2 Maccabees 1:36. These interesting passages remain quite unimportant to the story that is told however. From one perspective it can be seen as a war for religion, Greek or Jewish, and a eventual victory for the worshippers of the God of Israel. Casting it as a war for true “freedom of religion” is probably going too far as that concept did not really exist yet. At another level it can be seen as the love and dedication of a people for their temple and their relationship with God that was represented by that structure. In another way it can be seen as an example of an outnumbered people taking on a much superior force and winning through faith in God. All of these prove meaningful reasons to celebrate.
The holiday is mentioned in the New Testament and it seems clear that Christ observed it. John 10:22-23:
22 ¶And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.
23 And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch.
To me this imagery is haunting. Jesus did not live in Jerusalem and apparently took a special trip there during this holiday. Christ in winter walking the precincts of the temple he helped his people to reclaim is moving. The imagination conjures the lights burning in the structure and the warmth coming from the altar.
Over time a number of songs have developed around the holiday including the energetic Mi Yimalel and the dignified Maoz Tzur. A variety of rather silly songs are also popular including ones talking about making or spinning dreidels such as Sevivon or the Dreidel song. I have to give a bit of a shout out to a great Israeli group that has songs for this and many other holidays (My favorite is their number Dayenu about Passover but that's the wrong month) called Fountainheads. You can find excellent videos of their songs at http://youtu.be/Jzh-TKzXN2k and http://youtu.be/PQ6RCl0lie0 and http://youtu.be/ODy0ZZE8gJo.
So I hope the above has enabled you to have a better appreciation of this holiday and I would encourage you to light a few candles this year to remember the light the temple brings into the world. Chanukah began at sunset this last Tuesday and will continue until Christmas Eve. It starts on the 25th of Kislev each year.