Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, occurs yearly in December.
It does not usually occur at the same time as Christmas, since it is based on a lunar calendar as opposed to the Gregorian calendar used by most of the world. Therefore, Hanukkah’s start and finish vary from year to year. In 2017, Hanukkah started Tuesday and runs through next Wednesday evening, Dec. 20.
We celebrate Hanukkah by lighting candles every evening for eight nights. The first evening/day, we light one candle, along with a “shamash” candle, which serves to light the other candles. Then the second evening, we light two candles, using the shamash. The third evening three candles, the fourth evening four candles, etc.
Most Jews light candles in a beautiful nine-branched candle holder called a “Hanukkiyah.” Many call it a “menorah,” but actually Menorah refers properly to the seven-branched candle holder that was used in the original Temple in Jerusalem. The Hanukkiyah, has one branch for each day — up to eight days — and then a ninth branch for the shamash candle, with which we light all the others.
Each evening, when we light the candles, we say two blessings over them. Lighting candles and saying the blessings is the basic observance for Hanukkah.
But of course we like to celebrate, so we have special foods — like Potato latkes, or pancakes, and donuts — foods fried in lots of oil! And we play games, such as “dreidl.” Dreidl is a spinning 4-sided top with a Hebrew Letter on each side. These letters are “N,” ”G,” “H” and “S,” standing for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” which means “A Great Miracle Happened.”
Just in case you have forgotten the history of the holiday, it started in the year 175 Before the Common Era (BCE), when a Greek-Syrian king by the name of Antiochus Epiphanes ruled the land of Israel and the Jews. He tried to wipe out the Jewish religion and replace it with Greek religion.
He did not permit the Jews to perform their normal temple service, to circumcise their sons or to celebrate the Sabbath and holidays, on the pain of death. Antiochus had a Statue of Zeus put into the temple, sacrificed a pig in the temple and expected the Jews to worship the Greek gods.
Finally, a family of Jews, known as the Maccabees, started a rebellion against the rule of Antiochus. It was a long struggle, but finally in the year 164 BCE, the Jewish rebels overthrew Antiochus and began to restore the Jewish worship in the land.
One of the first things they did was to clean the temple that had been profaned. When they were ready rededicate the Temple to God (Hanukkah means dedication) and to relight the Temple Menorah, they discovered that they didn’t have enough kosher oil to last more than one day. It would take eight days to prepare new kosher oil.
But they didn’t wait; they re-lit the menorah anyway and rededicated the temple. One of the great miracles was that the one-day of oil lasted eight full days burning in the Menorah, until new kosher oil was ready. But an even greater miracle was that the Jews, under the leadership of Maccabees, were able to restore freedom to worship to the Jewish people.
I know you have heard this story before: the explanation of the holiday and the history and the miracle, but I feel it is an extra important lesson for us all this year, in 2017.
By lighting our Hanukkah candles, we Jews celebrate the great miracle of regaining religious freedom. The freedom to worship according to our own lights is in our Constitution, but many today in this country do not feel that they are truly allowed to worship according to one’s individual religious traditions. There have been too many incidents this past year of Americans targeting other Americans and immigrants who are Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and other minority faiths, targeting them with racist rhetoric and inciting violence against them.
It feels like it is going to get worse in the year to come.
As people of faith, we are all obligated to fight such behavior. No prophet — not Jesus, not Mohammed, not Buddha — demands violence and hatred and discrimination. If you think that your God demands violence and bigotry, then you have a warped view of your religion and of God. It’s time that we people of faith speak out in defense of Freedom of Religion for all, and for eliminating bigotry and racism.
The First Amendment’s freedom of religion means freedom of worship for every person of every faith. It is an important American value that we do not discriminate based on religion, national origin, race or gender or sexual orientation. We are all human; we are all God’s children, regardless of our religious identity (including atheism!). Let us learn from the horrors that our ancestors of all faiths lived through, and make sure we do not allow such hatred, violence and discrimination to continue in this country.
As the year wanes and we celebrate our many diverse holidays, let us all dedicate ourselves reach out in friendship to others who may worship differently from ourselves, and who may have different origins and life circumstances. That is what these holidays are truly about.