23 December 2016
While much of the country is preparing for Christmas this Saturday evening, Jews will be declaring ‘Goodbye to Shabbat –the Sabbath- and Welcome Chanukkah!’
Chanukkah is an eight day Jewish festival which falls somewhere between mid-November and late December – and this year its beginning coincides with Christmas Eve.
Chanukkah –a Hebrew word meaning ‘rededication’- recalls the heroism of a band of Jewish brothers – known as the Maccabees – who led a guerrilla campaign to free the Jews of Judea from the oppressive rule of the Syrio-Greek monarch, Antiochus IV.
Anthiochus, a successor of Alexander the great, banned the teaching and practice of Judaism and put up an idol of the Greek God Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem. Despite being few in number and limited in equipment the Maccabees fought a three year war which ended in victory in 164 BCE. Recorded in the Books of Maccabees, the Jews expelled the oppressing army, and reclaimed the Temple which they cleaned and rededicated to the worship of the one Hebrew God.
Legend tells that there was only enough olive oil to light the Temple lamps for a single day and further supplies of the right quality would take at least a day to be prepared and arrive but by a miracle the oil for one day lasted for eight days.
That is why in their homes on Christmas Eve Jews will light the taper candle and one further candle in their chanukkiyot, as the nine branched candlestick is called. On the second evening Jews will light the taper candle and two candles and by day eight the taper candle and all the eight candles will be lit.
Jews will also eat oily food including latkes (fried pancakes of potato and onion) and donoughts, play family games including the dreidel, a Jewish gambling spinning top, and exchange presents including chocolate money.
Amidst all the fun and festivities Jews will remember two important lessons. First, like all people we have the opportunity to bring light to others and to our world and second, sometimes that which is most important including the freedom to practice our religion needs fighting for.
Christmas is, of course a major event in the Christian calendar whereas in Jewish legal terms Chanukkah is a minor festival. Living, of course takes place every day between special occasions. In Jewish thought there is a distinction between the holy –that is something set apart for a particular spiritual purpose – and the mundane, by which is meant the ways and means of daily living. The task of the Jew is to elevate the mundane to the holy.
Much of the past year is theologically speaking mundane but it has also been form any a time of challenge and surprise. As we enter 2017 let us hope that in the face of change we shall discover courage, in the midst of difference we shall appreciate diversity and at the cusp of division we shall commit ourselves to unity and to a future in which every man, woman and child perceive opportunity not fear.
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