On Wednesday morning, as I was preparing to head off to shul for our daily morning minyan, our baby sitter, who is from Poland, was helping get our kids ready for school. She remarked that she was surprised that we were all going to work or school since Hanukkah was going to begin that evening. How come it wasn’t more like a yontif, a holiday that we took off from work, like Sukkot or Pesah?
Her question was a good one. Given the exposure that Hanukkah receives in American culture, one would think that Hanukkah is more important than other Jewish holidays, or at least, as important. We take off the first days of Pesah, Sukkot, and Shavuot and not take off the first day of Hanukkah?
I explained to her that Hanukkah is actually a fairly minor holiday and until modern commercial America ran with it, it was not that big a deal.
Jews have been fairly ambivalent about Hanukkah. Out of the 2100 pages in the Talmud, there is only one page that mentions Hanukkah. Second, while there are many books in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Maccabees did not make the cut.
(Why? Read a future blog!)
Seeking to infuse a religious component into the holiday, the rabbis weave the narrative of the miracle of the oil into the military story in the Talmud. But at its core, it is a simple holiday where we light a menorah and sing Hallel and read Torah each morning.
So we are left with ambivalence about this holiday, especially given how it is observed in America.
As Jews living in America, we are confronted with an enormous holiday season and a Christmas that is overdone (speak to my Christian colleagues about that. So, Hanukkah becomes writ large.
For more about this ambivalence, read this New York Times op-ed that appeared yesterday.
For myself, I try to and not get too carried away. (Though I can understand the need to get carried away in certain situation, see this piece, written by Gila Silverman, who grew up at Temple Emunah. She writes about creating a elaborate display to parallel Christmas displays where she lives in the Southwest.)
My approach is to try to get home as close to dusk as possible. That way, Hanukkah candles are lit while folks are driving home and can see our candles in our windows as they pass by. We spend a few minutes lighting the Hanukkiyot (usually one per person; my three-year-old loves this great honor - real fire!). We recite the blessings and sing the traditional songs, then continue on to other activities including our regularly scheduled ones.
Gifts are fine, but not central to the experience. Sometimes I will buy a Hanukkah book or a Jewish book for my own children so that they can dig deeper into the Hanukkah experience.
I hope to offer some new Hanukkah insights as we move through the festival, but for now – Happy Festival of Lights.
May the lights of the Hanukkiyah, of the Hanukkah menorah, bring joy and light into the world, reminding us that God’s presence is found in all moments, even a minor holiday like Hanukkah!