Hanukkah: The Most Important Ideas and Practices of the Holiday

Jewish Link – Hanukkah begins to be celebrated on the Sunday that enters at sunset. This is one of the most practiced festivities by Jews around the world. It consists of lighting an eight-armed chandelier for eight nights during which its light is increased. It has a special meaning for families, since the time to light the candles or the oil is usually a moment of peace and affection that reminds us of the importance of shared love. It goes without saying that the light of the candles and the practice of the festivity have endless nuances and meanings, then we will talk about the most important aspects that this festivity entails.

Historical events and main mitzvot of Hanukkah

One of the most beautiful things about Judaism is how many layers of meaning each action has. In each mitzvah (command or action) is present the individual relationship of the person with G-d, the mystical meaning of the mandate, the philosophical symbology that it represents and the historical fact that accompanies it. In the festivities we especially remember a historical event, however, all the meaning is not only the event but the encounter that the individual has in it, what that event represents in the present, how that event currently influences the world and what aspects of the event are important to note. We know this from the actions we take. There are two main Hanukkah mitzvot (commandments), which are tied to two different events in which is the center of the holiday and what it represents. They are the lighting of the Menorah and the paragraph that we add in the blessings of the food and the prayers, the first reminds us of the miracle of the oil and the second the success in the war of the Maccabees.

The war of the Maccabees and the paragraph of Al HaNisim

The context of the war

The entire Hanukkah holiday occurs in the context of the Maccabee War. In times when Judea was under Greek rule, there was a Seleucid military leader, Antiochus IV (215 BC – 163 BC), who decided to invade the region and impose Greek culture through military force. For which he appropriated the Temple and prohibited the practice of Judaism, such as the study of Torah, circumcision and sanctification, on pain of death. A group of priests, the Maccabees, refused to practice idolatry, took up arms and carried out a revolt for 25 years, at the end of which they were successful. Therefore, Jewish culture and its practice could continue to exist. We remember this in our prayers and writings.

Al Hanisim

Something that is very interesting about how Jewish practice and philosophy approach the event is that, unlike other cultures, we do not focus on the military strength of war or its success itself, but rather on its weakness itself and on having defended what we believed The paragraph from Al Hanisim is:

“And for the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty acts and for the salvation and for the wars that you made for our ancestors in those days in this time. In Chanukah, in the days of Mattityahu, son of Yochanan, the Hasmonean High Priest, and his sons, when the Greek kingdom rose up against Your nation Israel to make them forget the Torah from You and turn them away from the laws of Your will, and You , in Your great mercy, You defended them in their moment of distress. You fought their battles, you judged their judgment, [y] you avenged his revenge. You have delivered the strong into the hand of the weak, and the many into the hand of the few. The impure in the hand of the pure, and the wicked in the hand of the righteous, and the sinners in the hand of those involved with Your Torah. And for you, you made a great and holy name in your world, and for your nation Israel you have made a great salvation and redemption to this day. And after this Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your House and You cleansed Your dwelling, and sanctified Your sanctuary, and lit candles in the courtyards of Your sanctuary, and established these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and praise Your great name.”

We celebrate that the few won over the many, that the weak over the strong, and the upright over the impure. The Maccabees had a huge disadvantage over the Seleucids militarily speaking, they rose up in arms believing that they were going to find death. The miracle is not only that they have been successful but that their motives were not driven by force but by ethics, by beliefs. For acting correctly.

oil and menorah

The second event is the one that is given the most emphasis in the festivity, it is the one that every child hears the first time they light their Menorah and the best known. It is the event of the oil that lasted eight nights when it was thought that it would only last one.

Once the Maccabees were able to recover the Temple from the Seleucids, they needed to purify the enclosure in order to carry out the necessary sacrifices and practices. They found a vial of oil that still kept the seal of the High Priest with which they could light the Menorah and sanctify the enclosure. The miracle is that the bottle lasted eight days instead of just one, making the Divine Presence noticeable.

The lighting of the Menorah that we do today reminds us not only of that moment, but also of the Presence of G-d in our days, the way we can see it in our lives. It has a very deep meaning because it is a detail and highlights the importance of the everyday details, of symbols, of the present.

symbols and contrasts

The symbolism of the Menorah and of light extends to areas larger than the historical events mentioned, it involves the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible), Kabbalah, the Talmud and an endless number of positions. When talking about Hanukkah it is common to talk about certain contrasting meanings. Below we will explore just a few of them.

light and dark

We light the Menorah at night, in the darkest month of the year. The simple act creates a contrast between the light we turn on, which grows every night, and the darkness that surrounds it. That light and that dark They take on numerous meanings in the context of Hanukkah, as they are a light and an inner darkness. Light represents spirituality, knowledge and clarity. There are 36 candles that are lit in the Jewish texts, it is said that it is the light of the 36 wise men who maintain the world and the original light that G-d reserved for the just. While the darkness itself represents the Exile and the darkness of which the book of Genesis (Bereishit) speaks when mentioning Creation.

Yavan and Zion

Yavan in the Tanakh is Greece and that also includes the Seleucid Greece that invaded Judea. Tzion is Israel, something that is very curious is that in Hebrew both nations have the same letters except for the tzadik: Yavan is (yud, vav, nun) Tzion (tzadik, yud, vav, nun). In the context of Hanukkah, both nations are contrasted as they represent the epitome of intelligentsia but from different angles. Yavan represents darkness because of his emphasis on strength and his desire for dominance; it is the culture of art, beauty, philosophy, but its lack of morality in conquering Judea leads it to a void, leads it to an intellectuality that lacks spirituality. Zion is Yavan with the tzaddik; that is to say with the light of the wise, with the desire to give to the world instead of conquering it, with the emphasis on a spirituality. It is an intellectuality that enriches the person.

Other characters

The meaning of Hanukkah, the struggle between darkness and light, Yavan and Tzion is also present in events of the Tanaj and its characters. Apart from the Maccabees there are individuals who are important in understanding Chanukah. For example, the struggle between Yosef and Yehuda is central and the parasha of both is the one that is read in the week of Hanukkah, as is the conflict between Zimri and Pinchas. The story of Yehudit occurs at the time of the Seleucid invasion, if one wants to understand the festival in depth, one must take this into account.

number eight

Kabbalah speaks a lot about the symbolism of the number eight present in Hanukkah, since the Menorah is lit on eight nights. The eight represents transcendence and spirituality, that which is beyond this world. Representing miracles, Chanukah is also an opportunity to explore how Judaism views miracles.

Other practices

Apart from lighting the Menorah and reciting the Al Hanisim paragraph in our prayers, there are customs that are done on Hanukkah. For example, it is played with a whirligig called dreidel in Yiddish or sevivon in Hebrew, which reminds us of the miracle. Chocolate coins are distributed which we call Chanukah gelt, dairy products and fried things are eaten. Each of these customs have a way of reminding us of events from that historical moment or elements of the festivity.

Hanukkah: The Most Important Ideas and Practices of the Holiday