Chanukah is our family’s favorite holiday. As it approaches every year I try to plan something a bit different and uniquely special for our eight nights of celebration. Of course we already do the usual Chanukah activities, make latkes, play dreidel, have a grab bag. This year I’m stumped. Any ideas?
Given that there are eight nights of Chanukah, what about focusing on a different aspect of the holiday on each of the different nights? Right after lighting the candles, saying the blessings and singing “Maoz Tzur,” you could introduce the topic for the night with a question and a short discussion. Doing this, your family could be having fun and learning something as well, which is always a good thing. You might assign a different family member or guest to be the night’s leader. I will get you started with a theme and a question each night. And just for the added thrill, our themes will spell out the word Chanukah as the evenings progress, starting with C and continuing on through the last letter, H.
Chanukah: Why is the holiday called Chanukah? Yes, of course we all know: Dedication, as in re-dedication of the Temple in the year 165 B.C.E. after having been desecrated by Antiochus in 168 B.C.E. But there is more. The word Chanukah shares a root with the word for education, chinuch, and interestingly with the word for gums, as in the tissue in which our teeth our situated, chinkayim. Strangely enough, the three words have a common thread — newness. The Temple is dedicated anew, teeth spring with newness from our gums and chinuch — well, education is about learning something new all the time. What else can you think of that the three words share that might explain their common root?
Hasmoneans: The heroes of our holiday are members of a family called Hasmoneans. Though they are the champions of our story, they are also a controversial priestly family who ruled over the Kingdom of Judea for 103 years until Herod killed them off circa 37 B.C.E. In the story of Chanukah, they reign supreme with Matityahu, leading the revolt followed later by his sons Judah, Jonathan and Simon. However, as the years progressed, they became more controversial and less true to tradition. Their names demonstrate as much: They went from the early Judah, Jonathan, and Simon to the later Hyrcanus, Aristobulus and Menelaus. The very Hellenization that they first fought they came to embrace. Should this color the way that we remember them?
Antiochus IV: The villain of our story. We wonder about him. Known as Antiochus Epiphanes, he is the only Hellenistic king who took on the additional name “illustrious one” and divine epithets. He saw himself as godlike. Later, his deranged behavior led contemporaries to make fun of him and call him Antiochus Epimanes, the deranged one. To strengthen his rule in the region, he chose to side with the Hellenized Jews in what was becoming a civil war. He then went on to oppress the people with decrees that spurred the Hasmonean revolt. What makes certain people become intolerant tyrants? Do we ever see this in our more every day lives? Is it preventable?
Nerot: The Chanukah lights. That the miracle of Chanukah is centered particularly on the Temple’s menorah, the candelabra, is significant. There are other vessels of the Temple, for example: The table for the showbread, the altar for incense or the wash stand — these were not the focus of the intensely felt need to rededicate. The search for the oil took on an almost disproportionate centrality relative to its inherent utility. Many scholars discuss the overzealousness in getting the menorah lit. That very enthusiasm is apparent in perpetuity with our continued lighting today of the menorah in our homes, synagogues and houses of study. Those nerot, the lights, on the menorah are an enduring symbol of God’s love for the people Israel demonstrating presences of the shechinah. What do the lights of menorah symbolize for you?
Uprising: The Maccabees launched an uprising. Though much of the conflict was internal, their standing up to the Greeks was a decided deviation from the norm in Asia Minor, where Greek culture was embraced and happily adopted. The internal conflict pitted traditionalists against those Jews who embraced the culture at large: Greek language, philosophy, the gymnasium and more. With whom do you think you would have stood in that quarrel?
Kosher: A dramatic moment at the start of the Chanukah story is told in the Book of the Maccabees I, involving the forced offering of a pig by a Greek officer. The backdrop to this incident is the forced Hellenization of the Jews, profaning of the Temple, and the prohibitions against Sabbath observance. There were decrees issued ordering Greek cities to compel Jews to partake of the sacrifices, and to put to death those who would not consent to adopt the customs of the Greeks. As a Jew of Modiin was poised to partake of the pig offering, Matityahu stood up defiantly and stabbed the traitor, saying to the crowd, “Follow me, all of you who are for God’s law and stand by the covenant.” Thus the revolt began. Why do you think the Greeks chose a pig to offer? Why do you think through history the laws of kashrut are often the ones used in persecution?
Al Hanisim: The prayer added to the Amidah and the grace after meals throughout the eight-day-long holiday. Interestingly, there is no mention of the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days. Instead, it describes the uprising of the Hasmoneans against the Greeks and stresses the miracle of delivering the strong into the hands of the weak and the many into the hands of the few.
It concludes with the accomplishment of rededicating the Temple and kindling lights in the courtyard of the Temple. Other traditional sources such as the Talmud tell the story of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one. Why do you think this text, called Al Hanisim, “for the miracles,” does not emphasize the miracle of the oil but the military victory? Which is the greater miracle? Why did God “bother” with the oil miracle?
Hallel: The series of paragraphs from the Psalms recited through the week of Chanukah during the morning service. Hallel is a celebratory liturgy full of songs of gratitude that we sing on Rosh Chodesh and other happy occasions. It is seen as one of the major observances of this minor holiday. What aspect of this holiday is most worthy of thanksgiving?