Do you have any ideas about how to inject some substantial content into our Hanukkah celebration? Hanukkah is very fun, and at our home we light the menorah, we serve holiday foods, we sing songs and play driedl, but it feels like something is missing.
At Purim we read the Megillah and learn stories from it, and on Passover we read the Hagaddah, but there seems to be no vehicle for telling the Hanukkah story. Any suggestions?
You raise an appropriate challenge. Although we do have the prayer called Al Hanisim, which is found in most prayer books and does tell the story I think we could use more. Consider this idea: Hanukkah ushpizin.
Ushpizin is the Aramaic word for guest. The custom of ushpizin is practiced on each night of Sukkot. We invite guests into our Sukkah, traditionally Biblical figures, and we tell their story, discuss their lives, and some of us even craft our menu around them: red lentil soup for Jacob, lamb for Isaac, you get the idea.
What if we were to create Hanukkah ushpizin? Let us identify eight people from different moments in Jewish history one for each night that embody the ideals and heroism of Hanukkah. Then we invite them into our homes.
After lighting the candles, take time to announce the arrival of the evenings guest. The guests appear in chronological order, highlighting challenging times in our history.
In preparation you might do a little research of your own, but if time is limited simply read the short paragraphs below. Then encourage your family and friends to discuss the person and their story. In what way does their life inform our celebration of Hanukkah?
If you are feeling particularly ritualistic like you might begin by an official declaration. Otherwise, simply launch your conversation around the evenings personality.
Here is my list, but feel free to create your own. Start with this opening declaration if you like and follow with a list of guests and a few short details about their life.
Welcome venerable guest!
Welcome to our celebration of Hanukkah.
On this night of Hanukkah, we celebrate your story of heroism and commitment our people and our beliefs.
Mattityahu. How could we not start with this preeminent figure of the Hanukkah story? Known in English as Matthias, he is the father of the Maccabees. When Greek officers arrived in Modiin with the intent to forcibly implement the kings ordinances regarding sacrifices to idols, Mattityahu refused. With his sons and other believers, he launched the battle against the Greco-Syrians.
Judith is one of our most courageous female heroines. The legend goes that she was coerced by the Greco-Syrians to spend the night with the foreign general before her own wedding. Once alone with the inebriated man, she cut off his head and presented it to the Maccabees, who proceeded to win the battle against the leaderless army.
Yochannan ben Zakkai is the first-century sage who, when faced with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the virtual obliteration of his community, succeeded in extricating a promise from Vespasian, the conquering general, to preserve and save the Torah scholars of Yavneh, thereby guaranteeing the continuity of our people.
Don Isaac Abravanel, who lived in Spain in the 15th century, was a great Torah scholar. Though a prominent member of the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, he opted to be exiled with the Jewish community in 1492. He heroically led them in the march out of Spain.
Sara Bat Tovim lived in the 1700s in the Ukraine, which was still reeling from the Chmelnitzki uprisings. She wrote prayers specifically for women with uniquely female themes. The prayers were in Yiddish and used by women. Though her heroism is of a less dramatic nature, it is still deeply significant.
In the 1920s Sara Schenier, living in Krakow, Poland, began to realize that young Jewish women were receiving no formal Jewish education. She heroically launched the Bais Yaacov movement, which is still alive and well today. She started with one school and one small group of young women. By the time World War II started, over 20,000 women were studying in her schools, though most of her students perished in the Holocaust.
We invite two young women whose names we do not know. On October 7, 1944, several hundred prisoners relegated to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled after realizing that they were going to be killed that evening. During the revolt, they were able to blow up one of the gas chambers. The prisoners had used explosives smuggled into the camp by these two young Jewish women that had been assigned to forced labor in a nearby armaments factory. The Jewish women who had smuggled the explosives into the camp were caught and publicly hanged.
Natan Scharansky looms large in the minds of those of us who were alive during the refusenik period. After spending almost 10 years in Soviet prisons for trumped-up espionage charges, he was released with great celebration. Afterwards, when he was asked about his ordeal and how he had survived, he spoke about a book of Davids Psalms, which his wife had given to him. In particular, he mentioned Psalm Chapter 23 which said, fear no evil, and would later become the title of his autobiography.
I hope these stories, with great people of all generations some who display everyday courage as well as those who perform spectacular acts and are willing to lay their lives on the line for Judaism and the Jewish people help to bring your Hanukkah story alive.