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WHAT IS HANUKKAH?

Hanukkah is commonly thought to be the commemoration of a military victory by the Maccabees over the Greco-Syrian armies in 164 bce, after which we rededicated (a Hanukkah, in Hebrew) the Jerusalem Temple, only to discover there wasn’t enough oil to keep the ner tamid (Eternal Light) burning for the eight days it would take to bring new oil from the Negev Desert in the south.


This "miracle," however, seems to be a myth fabricated some 300 years after the Maccabees, thought up by rabbis whose communities were living under the yoke of Roman oppressors not at all pleased that Jews were celebrating the Maccabean overthrow of their Greek oppressors. The oil-story fooled the Romans and saved quite a few Jewish hides.

Problem is, it fooled us too. We forgot that Hanukkah is really about giving thanks to God for aiding a committed, but tiny, band of human rights activists in its battle against the mighty Syrian army for religious freedom.

In Hanukkah’s central prayer, Al Ha’nisim (For the Miracles), God is praised, but not for supernatural intervention through a cruse of oil. Rather, we're grateful to God for the natural miracle of the indomitable human spirit that would prefer death to physical or spiritual enslavement, and can sometimes succeed against all odds in restoring justice to our world.

WHY DO WE LIGHT THE HANUKIYAH (MENORAH)?
Placing the Hanukkah menorah in our window each year makes a powerful statement that we too would stake our lives on the right of every human being to live a life of religious freedom. Those tiny lights reflect the brightness of our own spirits, of our pride in being just a bit different, but also of our being willing to take a stand for every people’s God-given right to be different.

HOW DO WE OBSERVE HANUKKAH TODAY?
Hanukkah is almost entirely a time for celebration. The candles can be lit each night at home. Songs can be sung. Games can be played. It's good to tell (or read) the story of Hanukkah. And tzedakah is a wonderful Hanukkah tradition. In some families, one night is set aside to give gifts to the needy (rather than receive them ourselves), perhaps taking a trip to a local soup kitchen or children's hospital to deliver some heartfelt goodies.

HOW DO WE PREPARE THE HANUKIYAH (MENORAH)?
Place the candles in the hanukiyah (menorah) from right to left (as you face it). Then light them in the opposite direction. It's an important gesture, teaching that as no candle is more important than any other, we must be tolerant and kind to people of all sizes, shapes and colors.

HOW MANY CANDLES DO WE USE?
On the first night of Hanukkah, one shamash ("helping" candle) is used to light one candle. On the second night, one shamash lights two candles. And so forth, until the eighth night, when one shamash lights all eight candles.

WHERE DO WE PLACE OUR HANUKIYAH?
If possible, your hanukiyah should go near or in a window. In this way, passers-by can see the burning candles, fulfilling the mitzvah of peer-soom ha-neys, "publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah." Remember, the Maccabean struggle against Antiochus was for religious freedom; Hanukkah today celebrates the religious freedom we enjoy here in America. Placing your hanukiyah in the window celebrates (and demonstrates) that freedom!

WHEN DO WE LIGHT OUR CANDLES?
Just after nightfall. But if you need to leave the house early, or you get home late, light them when you can. As a Reform Jew, look for ways into, not ways out of, our beautiful traditions.

WHAT DO WE ACTUALLY DO WHEN WE LIGHT THEM?
Tradition has us say the blessings first, then light the candles (perhaps while singing Maoz Tzur). Some families find it meaningful to recite the blessings while the candles are being lit. The first two blessings are read (or sung) each night of Hanukkah. The third blessing (She-he-khe-ya-nu) is used on the first night only.

ARE THERE ANY ENGLISH READINGS FOR US TO ENHANCE OUR CANDLE LIGHTINGS?
Sure! You can purchase Haneirot Halalu – These Lights are Holy (edited by Rabbi Elyse Fishman) from CCAR Press online. Or download The Story of Hanukkah – Eight Nights of Readings (written by Rabbi Billy) from wct.org.

WHAT ABOUT WHEN HANUKKAH FALLS ON SHABBAT?
Light your hanukiyah first, followed by Shabbat candles.

HELP! I DON'T KNOW HOW TO READ OR SING THE BLESSINGS!
Visit the Union for Reform Judaism's website (reformjudaism.org/jewish-holidays/hanukkah). They'll teach you the blessings and lots, lots more.

WHAT ABOUT CHRISTMAS?
Christmas has undergone quite a transformation here in America. Not only do many Jews consider it a secular holiday, but so too many Christians, particularly those who question the divine birth of Jesus. And thanks to a highly successful promotional campaign by the Coca-Cola Company in the early 1900's, Santa Claus exited church-lore and became an immensely popular figure in American secular folklore.

Nevertheless, a strong case remains for Christmas being not a holiday, but a holy day.

Consider the following. The Christmas tree is a significant and potent religious symbol. Its wood is symbolic of the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified, and its evergreen branches symbolize Jesus’ resurrection and immortality. The silver tinsel embellishing its branches is also known as "Angel's Hair," and symbolizes the heavenly hosts attending Jesus’ miraculous birth. The Christmas colors of red and green symbolize the blood of Jesus shed at his death upon the Cross, and his eternal life through resurrection. Mistletoe is a kind of mini-Christmas tree, evergreen to honor the immortal Son of God. The holly wreath which adorns so many front doors represents the crown of thorns that Jesus was made to wear on the Cross — its little red berries represent drops of blood from Jesus’ body, and evergreen again to honor his immortality. The ornaments adorning Christmas trees were originally apples, reminders of the downfall of Adam and Eve which, according to Christian tradition, placed the stain Original Sin upon every human being, a stain removable only by Jesus’ saving power.

The Christian community, then, each December 25th, celebrates the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth, who preached goodness and peace on earth and will someday return to make that peace a reality. It is a beautiful and meaningful statement of religious faith which the Christian community marks with religious acts of tree-decorating, gift-giving, singing and nativity scenes.

THE CHALLENGE OF HANUKKAH AND CHRISTMAS SIDE-BY-SIDE
So the information is now in your hands. What do you think? Are Hanukkah and Christmas secular holidays, or religious holy days? At this season of lights, may all our lives be filled with the warmth, wisdom and faith of tradition and God. May we renew our commitments to the dreams and visions from days of old that, one day, if we will link our arms and our destinies, all humankind will live together in the bright light of friendship and peace.

Rabbi Billy Dreskin

Fri, January 28 2022 26 Sh'vat 5782