What is Chanukah?

Posted: Dec 25, 2005 12:01 AM

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah, a minor Jewish holiday that's become a major one over the years. The first candle will be kindled, leaving seven to go, one for each night of the eight-day festival. There'll be latkes to be eaten, songs to be sung . . . .

But just what does Chanukah celebrate?

Answer: A successful Jewish revolt against a Syrian empire ruled by the Seleucid dynasty of Greek kings some 2,200 years ago.

Well, not exactly. The revolt was not so much against the Syrian emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes, as against his attempt to impose Hellenistic culture on ancient Judaea.

Well, not exactly. It's not noised about, but this now celebrated revolt supposedly against the Syrians was really something of a civil war between those Jews who proposed to adopt more of the fashionable Greek culture and those who rebelled against it. They viewed its games and gods as a desecration, and fought for the old ways, the hallowed practices and beliefs. It may not be noised about in some politically enlightened circles, but this festival commemorates a military victory - of tradition over assimilation, of fundamentalism over modernism.

Well, not exactly. The military aspects of the struggle are scarcely mentioned in today's celebration of Chanukah. The focus has shifted over the centuries. The very name Chanukah, or Dedication, now refers to the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was defiled by pagan rites.

After all, the holiday isn't named after any particular battle or campaign or hero. It isn't the Feast of the Maccabees, who led the revolt. Therefore the real theme of Chanukah is the rededication of the Temple.

Well, not exactly. The essential ritual of the holiday has become the blessing over the Chanukah lights, one for each night of the eight-day festival. The festivities now center about a Talmudic tale relating how the liberators of the Temple found only enough pure oil to burn for one day, but it lasted for eight - enough time to prepare a new supply. We're really celebrating the miracle of the lights.

But what's all this about light and candles? What about the heroes who are remembered during Chanukah - Judah Maccabee and his father Mattathias? Are not their deeds the thread that runs through all of Chanukah?

Yes, but not exactly. Their exploits are referred to in prayers and rituals only by indirection. Heroic feats are transmuted in the glow of the candles; they become acts of divine intervention.

The blessing over the candles recited each night of the holiday goes: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old."

Miracles, not victories. As in the Exodus from Egypt, it is He who delivered us. Freedom is a gift from God, not men.

Chanukah isn't mentioned in the Old Testament. The swashbuckling stories of battles and victories have been relegated to the Apocrypha. A mere military victory rates only a secondary place in the canon. The victory is to be celebrated not for its own sake but for what it reveals.

One more violent confrontation has been lifted out of history, and enters the realm of the sacred. A messy little guerrilla war in the dim past of a forgotten empire has become something else, something that partakes of the eternal.

The central metaphor of all religious belief - revealing light - now blots out all the imperial intrigues and internecine warfare. And that may be the greatest miracle of Chanukah: the transformation of that oldest and darkest of human activities, war, into a feast of illumination.

There is more than a single theme to this minor but not simple holiday. One can almost trace the ebbs and flows of Jewish history, its yearnings and fulfillments, its wisdom and folly, its holiness and vainglory, by noting which themes of Chanukah have been emphasized when in Jewish history.

History, as usual, says more about the time in which it is written than the time it describes. The message of Chanukah changes from age to age. And the past we choose to remember becomes the truest reflection of any present.

When Chanukah is celebrated with pride, a fall is sure to come. When it inspires humility, hope is justified.

If there is one, unchanging message associated with this minor holiday magnified by time, it can be found in the unchanging portion of the Prophets designated to be read for the Sabbath of Chanukah. It is Zechariah 4:1-7, with its penultimate verse:

Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts.