A Brief History of Chanukah Lights
© Copyright 2006 Jonathan Grass
As the holiday season approaches, we all lean a little toward the fantasy side of life, especially children. But children grow up and encounter the real world, and then it's the parents who are faced with the difficult task of separating the innocent notions they've grown up with from reality without crushing their spirits.
A friend of mine is a new father and overjoyed that his child is too young to contemplate what the holidays really mean. He can fully indulge in the childish make-believes of the season to which the boy will grow accustomed to during his early years. However, soon enough he'll look at his surroundings in the real world and begin to question the innocent fantasies he's been exposed to at home. My friend knows it's only a matter of a few short years before his son will inevitably ask that most difficult, awkward question a parent can encounter, "Dad, why don't we have a Hanukkah?"
I feel for my friend. Being of a non-Jewish lineage, he doesn't possess the knowledge of the roots of this wonderful holiday and therefore cannot explain why such a joyous occasion is restricted to those of us that go the way of the shul.
As a matter of fact, most people don't, even many Jews. Luckily, I'm here to provide the answers so that all of you families out there can avoid certain dysfunctions as a result of your ignorance. As a child I was one of the few with the privilege of this eight-day holiday involving presents, so the least I can do is provide the world with the information of Hanukah's origins to help bring understanding why it's restricted to Jewish households.
To begin with, it should be noted that Hanukkah begins on a different date each year. This is because it officially starts on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar. Since no one really knows when Kislev is, or for that matter what it is, we have the advantage of starting this holiday whenever we want. The only reason we aren't ripping the wrapping off presents three or four times a year is because Congress issued a bill in 1975 prohibiting this. This was also around the time they tried to force us to use the metric system.
Hanukkah is known as "The Festival of Lights" in celebration of an ancient struggle and the Israelis' triumph over religious oppression and building materials. It began over 200 years B.C. in Jerusalem when King Antiochus declared Judaism illegal and that everyone must worship, of all things, Zeus. Maccabee, the son of the Jewish high priest who kick-started the revolution against this atrocity, eventually led his people to defeat the Greek army.
Once that was done, they decided to restore the Holy Temple that was damaged under the tyrannical rule. Unfortunately, due to the not-yet existence of treatment facilities, all the oil they needed for the job was tainted and supply trucks were not running at the time because of a union strike. Luckily, they remembered that blessed proverb from the Torah, "Some is better than none," and used their last bit of useable oil to do whatever it was they used oil to do. This was only one day's worth, so they needed a miracle now more than ever.
As luck would have it, a miracle did indeed occur. One of the soldiers remembered he had stored some extra oil in his pet camel's hump. No one dared ask how he got it in there. The result was that they had enough oil to burn the lights (I just looked up what it was used for) for eight days, plenty of time for them to give up waiting for their building supplies and go home. Today Jews everywhere observe the miracle of those precious extra days of light by miraculously keeping our favorite holiday going for over a week. Try pulling that off with Pentecost Sunday.
This is where we stand today as the eight-day celebration continues. In fact, it could have already started for all I know. I'll go check the Kislev now. Let me leave you all with this, Happy !
from the December 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine