Chanukah is coming and the advertisers won't let you miss it. By virtue of its accidental proximity to the major holiday of the dominant culture which surrounds us, this otherwise minor holiday has been elevated by American Judaism to the status of a great festival.
Chanukah is so minor that, unlike every other holiday, it has no dedicated tractate in the Talmud. It comes up incidentally in the second chapter of Masechet Shabbat (21a-21b) in a discussion about candle lighting. "What is Chanukah?" asks the Talmud. The explanation can be recited by any 5-year-old Hebrew school student: "The 25th day of Kislev begins eight days of Chanukah ("Dedication"). When the Greeks entered the Holy Sanctuary, they defiled all the oil there. But after the Hasmoneans (the Maccabbees) defeated them, they found only one jar of oil sealed with the High Priest's seal. It contained enough oil for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit from it for eight days. The next year they set these days as a holiday with song and prayers of thanks."
So much for the history. The observance of Chanukah is similarly encapsulated in a few brief statements:
The mitzvah of Chanukah is for each person to light a candle [on behalf of his family] in his home. Those who wish to embellish the mitzvah light one candle for each person in the house. As for those who wish to observe the mitzvah in the fullest and most beautiful way... Hillel's School teaches to light one candle on the first day and to add one each day. (ibid.)
The Talmud adds in subsequent elaborations that Jews of high regard in the community light an extra candle — today we call it the shamash — in addition to their Chanukah lights. While the embellishments are commendable, the placement of one candle on a table in one's home is considered sufficient fulfillment of the mitzvah.
Have you ever heard of anyone lighting only one Chanukah candle!? In modern America, we find that the vast majority of America's Jews, even those who are most assimilated among us, observe Chanukah. And not only do we all observe Chanukah, we all observe it according to the most elaborate, adorned, and embellished mitzvah described in the Talmud. We even go beyond that and add an extra candle, affirming our importance as Jews of high regard. The Hasmoneans would rejoice in the strength with which we cling to their festival.
There is tremendous historical irony in our observance. The Hasmonian revolt was lead by the religious zealots of their day. They were as much against Jewish assimilation into Greek culture as they were against foreign rule in the Holy Land. Two millennia later, the most assimilated Jewish community — exactly those whom the Hasmonians rejected from political and religious leadership — cling to the legacy of the holiday declared by these same zealots.
And therein lies evidence of the dedication of American Jewry. While the pundits debate the meaning of the latest population survey and the assimilation rates of our disappearing community, we all observe the mitzvah of Chanukah to its fullest. There is no other mitzvah behind which American Jewry is so united. There is no other mitzvah that is upheld by so many to its highest degree.
There is a tradition that the lighting of Chanukah candles will bring parents the blessings of children who are steeped in Torah. (See Rav Huna's statement, Shabbos 23b, and Rashi's explanation.) As we light our candles, we manifest our dedication to Judaism. We affirm our Jewish roots with pride and joy. But we need not stop there. We can extend that pride and joy to the full affirmation Rav Huna's views and bless our children with an education steeped in Torah. Not only would the Hasmoneans rejoice in our observance of their festival, they would also smile on our affirmation of their values.
The idea behind this essay came when I first learned Mai Chanukah? in the Talmud back in the early 1990s, but I didn't actually write this essay until much later.
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