In America Hannukah has become associated with ‘jingle bells” and “ho, ho, ho” as some kind of Jewish version of Christmas minus the “Christ” part.
In Israel people eat Sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts), while Hannukah as a Jewish festival is often misrepresented by the secular as something it is not, at least according to Jewish Law and history.
In America, Hannukah is the only major Jewish holiday that has suffered from “assimilation” and “intermarriage” among the millions of assimilated and intermarried Jews as being somehow conjoined with Christmas-time festivities, Christmas even has its own “lights”, with “Hannukah bushes” and “Chrismukah” joint Hannukah and Christmas celebrations. Even among those who do not go that far, sometimes Hannukah is either totally ignored or very vaguely understood as a time to light Hannukah candles and give gifts. But no one seems to know why!
In Israel, the miraculous victories of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks that resulted in the independence of Judea under the Hasmoneans is compared to the victories of modern Israel over its Arab enemies without alluding to G-d’s part in both those ancient and modern victories. Hannukah seems to become an ancillary of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day
But the holiday is more than that.
Hannukah is an ancient rabbinically ordained festival. Hannukah’s uniquely Jewish religious spiritual message is lost upon those who only want to exchange gifts as the Christians do, or connect it to modern military victories.
Poor Hannukah! It is so, so misunderstood!
Yes, Hannukah is undoubtedly popular with assimilated and intermarried and secular Jews, yet it is a supremely Jewish religious holiday created by real ancient pre-Talmudic RABBIS, referred to in the Hannukah prayers in Hebrew as BNEI BINAH, “sons/men of understanding”, over two thousand years ago to commemorate the Jews’ victory over the ancient Seleucid Empire based in Syria.
That powerful empire had invaded Judea and turned the holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem into a pagan temple of idolatry, while at the same time imposing pagan worship on the Jews under their control. There were other Greek dominated empires, such as the Ptolemaic Egyptian Greek empire where hundreds of thousands of Jews lived that, while not being forced to do so, were subject to the same powerful influences of Greek culture and ethos.
The aspect of the military victory of the Jews, led by the Maccabees, or Hasmoneans as they were known, was crucial. As the special section inserted in Jewish prayers on Hanukkah states it was the mighty and greater in number Greek army that were defeated by the weaker and smaller Jewish forces. There is a Book of Maccabees, not included in the Jewish Bible (TANACH) but still a mostly reliable source (except for the parts added by Christians, but that’s beyond the scope of this essay) of what transpired. It recounts many battles and personalities involved in a series of wars until the Greeks were expelled from Judea and the Jews regained their autonomy. That is the history behind the festival of Hannukah that everyone should take the time to find out about. There are books and videos online that explain what happened during the wars between the Syrian Greeks and the Maccabee Hasmoneans and their followers.
Even if one reads up on the military victories of the Jews over their enemies, there is one constant that is hardly noted or studied or understood, and that is the cultural, social, religious and spiritual struggle between Greece as the empire of Alexander the Great versus Judea (as well as Jews living outside of the Land of Israel especially in the Middle East). What I am referring to is the phenomenon of Hellenization, the spread of Greek culture, its ideas, philosophies, music, art, language and its entire ethos and mentality to lands conquered by Alexander the Great (356 BCE – 323 BCE) and subsequently ruled by his heirs such as the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria for 300 years until the conquests of the Romans. They, however, continued the teaching and culture of Greece that continues in the world to this day through Roman-Greco culture.
The Greeks, and especially the Jewish Hellenizers living in the more peaceful Egyptian Ptolemaic exile tried to change the Jew’s God-given Torah. One of the Ptolemy kings ordered that the Torah be translated into Greek which is commemorated on a Jewish day of mourning. Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE) wrote a commentary on the Torah, rejected by the rabbis of his time, that attempted to re-interpret it in alignment with Greek philosophy heralding the attempts by modern-day reformers to modernize the Torah by changing it to fit in with the latest politically correct jargon of the day.
The more things change, the more they stay the same it seems.
Hellenization is unique and very sophisticated. Unlike earlier empires such as the Assyrians and Babylonians who enslaved and exiled the Jews from the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, or the Persians who plotted to entirely wipe out the Jewish exiles living in their lands, the ancient Greeks came along with a very enlightened approach of “become one of us” – in a word assimilate and intermarry, if not in the physical sense than certainly in the philosophical, intellectual, psychological and spiritual sense.
Become Hellenized: Enjoy our music, love our architecture and art, glory in sports and our Olympics, and most importantly drink deeply and become intoxicated from our classical Greek Philosophy and philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and many more. It is this aspect of the Hannukah story, meaning the victory over not just the Greek armies but also the victory over Hellenization that is simply not known, and for good reason.
The goal of the Greeks, of their wars and Hellenization, was to disconnect the Jews from God. So it’s no surprise that only really religious Jews know this dual lesson of commemorating the physical and spiritual victories as one package deal. Think of this as a strong example: the word “Atheism” is Greek and it means “A Theos” meaning “there is no God.” The existence of a religious Jew stands in the way.
To be assimilated and celebrate Hannukah is like eating non-Kosher and saying you are still a “religious Jew” because if one does not know Jewish history and the Jewish religion then one is filled with the wrong information and practicing incorrectly. In a word one is Hellenized, something not to be proud of or admired from a Jewish point of view, but easily cured by gaining the right Torah information and beginning to practice Judaism the way it was meant to be done and not according to the ancient Greek or today’s modern mythologies and philosophies.
In fact, the special additional prayer that is added to the daily Jewish prayers on Hannukah alludes to both the physical victories over the Greek armies and also over the assimilatory forces of Hellenization. It notes that the impure, wicked, and malicious were defeated by the pure, righteous and Torah scholars who were able to not just rid Judea of the gentile Greeks but to suppress the Hellenizers among the Jews and re-establish the religious service at the Jewish Temple, rededicating it to its original holy purpose. Hence the word Hannukah which in Hebrew means (re)-dedication by also (re)-lighting its MENORAH (candelabrum) that miraculously remained lit for eight days while there was only enough pure kosher sanctified olive oil for one day. And the Hebrew word for education has the same root.
Like all festivals, Hannukah is seriously tied in with Jewish History, but it has a special message for modern Jewish history that has seen an upswing in assimilation and imitating the ways of the gentiles.
Jews are suffering from a syndrome that is referred to as “the urge to merge” so that unless a Jew is religiously knowledgeable, whether in America or in Israel, he has still not understood what Hannukah is all about. If you think it is some sort of roughly “Jewish Christmas” or an ancient version of ‘Yom Haatzmaut,” remember that it is neither of those.
The Jewish sages teach that one of the reasons that the miracle of Hannukah was through lights is because the Greeks, trying to conquer the Jewish People physically by wars and spiritually by Hellenization, brought the deepest darkness to the Jewish People on all level, something that was continued by the Romans and is still with us in the present.
Darkness is symbolized by night and its blackness, at its peak in America and Israel during the month of Kislev (in December). It is just at that moment that we “fight” the darkness of Winter’s darkest nights by lighting the little lights that, albeit in a small way, symbolically dispel the darkness surrounding us from all sides on all levels.
It goes deeper than that.
According to the first verses in the Torah in the book of Genesis it states that there was darkness and chaos upon the face of the Earth before anything existed. This “darkness” is a hint to the future “darkness”, it is a futuristic prophecy of that which the Greeks and Hellenizers tried to do to the Jews, and are still trying, to impose an alien and foreign ideology upon the Jewish People.
As we know, God then says “let there be light” but the Jewish sages say it can’t be the physical Sun because the Sun was created later, so what is that “light” that God originally created?
The answer is that it is a unique special light called the “OR HAGANUZ,” a mystical spiritual and omnipotent “HIDDEN LIGHT” that is hidden away from human eyes and that only the righteous among humanity will merit to witness, since it is an aura in closer proximity to God than anything else.
What it is exactly we cannot fully comprehend in our current corporeal existence, but is so powerful that its at the core of the Torah and the Jewish Soul and it can and does dispel and banish all forms of darkness. It is the secret miracle ingredient that propelled the Maccabees, the light of the Menorah in the Jewish Temple, and hence of our own channukiyot, the miraculous victories of today’s Jewish army, and the festival of Hannukah!
It is the power of that original olden Hidden Light of the Or Haganuz that we light up when we light the Hannukah candles evoking in ourselves the ability to overcome both physical and spiritual darkness. What we are celebrating is far, far higher that what we assume. Every Jew who lights a Hannukah Menorah is connecting with the same line of divinity that the Kohanim (Jewish Priests) did when they lit and kept the original Menorah burning bright in the Beit Hamikkdash, a light that went forth from there to shine upon the Land of Israel and the world beyond.
The Or Haganuz, the Hidden Light that shines bright from God at Creation, to the Menorah in the Jewish Temple, through the victory and essence of Hannukah, as directed and established by the Jewish Sages as a permanent ritual and holiday to performed by all Jews for the last two thousand years and counting, stretching into the future when the original Hidden Light will be hidden no more and Gods’ truth through His Torah will illuminate the world forevermore until the end of times.