Hannukah: Why a Local Military Victory, and a Small Jar of Oil Continue to Inspire Millions Around the World to This Day, By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

Hannukah: Why a Local Military Victory, and a Small Jar of Oil Continue to Inspire Millions Around the World to This Day

Why celebrate Chanukah? It is easy to understand why we celebrate Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and even Purim; all of these holidays mark an even that has a direct impact on who we are. And yet, Chanukah marks two separate miracles, neither of which have any impact on us. The Maccabee revolt in 163 BCE lasted hardly until the year 63 BCE when the Romans occupied Judea, and cannot be considered something that we still benefit from. The oil lasting eight days? Indeed a miraculous event, but in what way does it impact us today? So why celebrate more than 2150 years later when the events it marks have little to no impact on us?

Commentaries wonder furthered: why it is that Jews around the world light the appropriate amount of candles every day of Chanukah despite the fact that Jewish law mandates only the lighting of one candle per day, per household? The stipulation to light more than one candle a day is only for the Mehadrin, those who choose to go the extra mile who light one candle for every member of the household. And so, the common Jewish custom[1] is that we light candles corresponding to the number of days of Chanukah, AND corresponding to the number of family member, something that is far from required but is rather a way of over-observing the laws of Chanukah, why?

To understand this we need to look at the historical background of Chanukah. The Jewish people have returned from their exile in Babylon and have lost the blessing of prophecy not long before. The Jewish people find themselves in a situation similar to those described by the Prophet Amos (8:10) not long before:” Behold, days are coming, says the Lord God, and I will send famine into the land, not a famine for bread nor a thirst for water, but to hear the word of the Lord.” The Jewish people felt spiritually abandoned by the disappearance of prophecy and clear leadership.

It is in that time that Hellenistic culture, with all of it’s power, sweeps through their country. For the first time the Jews meet an occupier, that admires their culture. The Greeks admired the Jews as a “nation of philosophers”. The Greeks do not aspire to destroy the Jewish Temple, just to modernize it. They do not reject the rights of Jews as citizens, quite to contrary, they seek to “empower” the Jews, educate them, and help them understand the beauty of Hellenistic culture. The Greeks are supersessionists, not seeking to uproot all that is Jewish.

And indeed, many Jews follow this trend. They became Hellenized, they began worshiping Greek gods, they adopted Greek culture. You did not need to reject your nationality or history to become Hellenized, you just needed to adapt.  It was the first time someone invaded, not the Jewish heartland, but the Jewish heart. It was the first time another culture has made it’s inroads with the language Jews understood better than any language: books and ideas.

Violating the Temple was just another example of what the Greek invasion looked like. It was not about destroying the Temple, it was about “modernizing”[2] it to worship Zeus. It was not about taking away the Menorah and its oil, it was about taking away its meaning and purity.

And so, the first Maccabee revolt and its success, did not only symbolize a military victory, but it signified an ability to maintain the Jewish spirit, in the face of cultural supersessions. It was the first time the Jewish people had experienced and invasion of the spirit, and were triumphant.

This also answers the question discussed by so many commentaries, why it is that Maccabees insisted on searching of a pure jar of oil, despite the law that permits using an impure one in the absence of pure oil? This is because the Maccabees were not looking for a compromise of the spirit; they were seeking its victory.

This is also why it is common custom for Jews around the world to follow the Mehadrin min HaMehadrin custom of lighting one candle per person per night and not just follow the strict letter of the law. On a holiday symbolizing the victory of the spirit and our ability to maintain our uniqueness in the face of the most intimate threats, we rejoice in going the extra mile, in our ability to serve Hashem in the most dedicated way, despite having ways out and the ability to compromise.

This may also be the reason that of all Jewish holidays, Chanukah is also the only one in which there is no instituted food related celebration. Yes, of course there are the latkes, sufganiyot, and more, but there is no obligation to celebrate with a celebratory meal. In a holiday that signifies the victory of the spirit we find nourishment in the most metaphysical element we can see: pure light. Happy Chanukah!

 

https://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/bitstream/handle/1993/31671/Arksey_Keaton.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y

http://lib.cet.ac.il/pages/item.asp?item=14316

http://www.pnimi.org.il/holidays/chanukah/198-rectifying-greek-philosophy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Shulchan Aruch OC 671:2

[2] Special thanks to rabbi Uri Sharki for his eye opening explanation of this matter.

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