By Rabbi Mark Glickman
(Edmonton) – To the rabbis of the Talmud, Chanukah seems to have been in a category of its own. Unlike other holidays, they don’t seem to understand it very well at first. When those rabbis began discussing Shabbat, for example, or Yom Kippur or Pesach, they just dove right into the nature of the celebrations and rituals. But Chanukah was different. With this holiday, the rabbis opened their Talmudic discussion by asking “Mai – what is – Chanukah?” These sages, so learned in all things Jewish, almost seemed puzzled by this celebration. “We know what Sukkot is,” they seemed to suggest, “and we’re clear on Rosh Hashanah. But Chanukah? What is this thing?”
One of the reasons for their confusion, I think, is that Chanukah has always been the subject of a push-pull tension between secularism and religion. Historians tell us that it started out as a purely military celebration, a festive salute to the heroism and soldierly prowess of the Maccabees in their victory over the Greeks. The story of the little jar of oil and of G-d’s miraculous intervention only came along about six centuries later, during Talmudic times. It seems that the Jews of those later eras, living as they did at the whim of other ruling authorities, came to realize that a holiday celebrating a time when Jews gave a military whupping to their own ruling authorities was somewhat impolitic.
The Jews of these later times, in other words, took what had been a secular military holiday and transformed it into a religious one. Now, Chanukah would celebrate divine marvels rather than just human achievement. Now, the purpose of the festival would be pirsum hanes – public proclamation of the G-d’s miracle – rather than just waving military standards.
That tension between Chanukah as a religious festival and Chanukah as a secular one continues today. Every Chanukah, Jews around the world light chanukkiyot – Chanukah menorahs – in their homes, the flames shining out their windows to share the miracles that we remember. Similarly, we spin dreidles, eat oily foods, and sing songs, all of which invoke memory of the miraculous nature of that little jar of oil first mentioned in the Talmud.
At the same time, Chanukah is also experiencing the pull of the secular. Retailers have Chanukah sales; delis offer Chanukah specials; and the greeting card and wrapping paper aisles in many stores feature Chanukah sections so that they too can cash in on the festival.
Additionally, some Jewish organizations secularize the holiday, too. They conduct Chanukah candle lightings in shopping malls and town squares – places where, say, conducting a Catholic mass would be unthinkable. Religious observances often have no place in the North American public square – Chanukah only gets there because some of us are willing to secularize it.
So, what is Chanukah? It’s all of these things. It’s a secular festival of gifts, games and yummy, high cholesterol foods, and it’s a religious celebration calling us to focus on the awesome power of G-d’s miracles. It’s a holiday in which we rejoice in the courage and military might of our ancestors, and it’s one whose Haftarah comes from Zechariah (4:6) – “It is not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says Adonai of hosts.”
This Chanukah, of course, will be an unusual one for us all. As I write these words, Covid-19 rates are soaring here in Alberta, and as long as these rates continue, it will be irresponsible for us to hang out for very long in the public square. As a result, this year we won’t be spending as much time at the sales and in the malls and at the town-square candle lightings. To do so would be an irresponsible rejection of pikuach nefesh – our tradition’s call to protect human life at almost any cost.
But we will be able to be at home this year. We will be able to sing our Chanukah songs, light our Chanukiot, and place them in the window as a proclamation of G-d’s greatness. These aspects of our tradition need not be given up, even during these difficult days.
Pandemics, in other words, make secular celebrations difficult, because those celebrations often occur in the public square. But they still leave open the rich religious traditions of this holiday.
May this Chanukah be one of safety and health for us all. And, as always, may it be a time of warmth, togetherness, and shared joy in the many miracles that enriched our lives then just as they do now.
Rabbi Mark Glickman is Rabbi at Temple B’nai Tikvah in Calgary.