Yom Shabbat, 28 Kislev 5775
Hanukkah Saturday, 20 December 2014
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Read an inspired commentary on this week’s Torah portion by one of our free-thinking Liberal Rabbis.

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Parashat Mikketz/Chanukkah
16th December 2014 - Rabbi Alexandra Wright

The eight day festival of Chanukkah is a bit of a mystery.  What is the reason for keeping the festival for eight rather than the biblical seven days as prescribed for the festivals of Sukkot or Pesach?    Both the Sanctuary in the wilderness during the time of Moses, and Solomon’s Temple had celebrated dedication periods of seven days.  Eight – apart from the eight days for circumcision – is an unusual number in Jewish tradition.

There are several explanations as to why the festival is eight and not seven days long.  One is that it took the Maccabees eight days to clean and purify the Temple which had been desecrated by the Syrians under the oppressive sovereignty of Antiochus Epiphanes.  Another is that eight spears of iron were found in the Temple and these were used as bases for the flames to be lit.  The most well-known and popular reason is found in the Babylonian Talmud, where the story is told of a small vial of oil found in the Temple, just enough to keep the flame on the altar lit for one day, but which miraculously lasted for eight days.  The most viable explanation can be found in the passage from the Book of Maccabees: there we learn that the Maccabees had been living in the mountains during the (rabbinically prescribed) eight day festival of Sukkot and had been unable to celebrate the festival.  Only when the Temple was recaptured and rededicated were they able to celebrate the festival in its right place but at the later time beginning on 25 Kislev.

The problem with these explanations, apart from the last one, is that they tell us much more about the concerns of the Rabbis at a later period than the actual event itself.   Deeply uncomfortable with the nationalism of the Hasmoneans and their combining of monarchy and priesthood in one office, the Rabbis used the story of the miracle of the oil to deflect attention away from the Hasmonean dynasty to the spiritual message of Chanukkah and God’s role in the defeat of the Syrians.

So to find the real reason why Chanukkah lasts for eight days, we must look even further afield.   The Maccabees were not building a new Temple; their precedent was neither the construction of the Temple by Solomon, nor the rebuilding of the Temple after its destruction during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.  They were engaged in purifying and rededicating a Temple that was already in existence.  Their precedent needed to be an occasion when the Temple was simply rededicated and not rebuilt.  And so they looked back to the time of King Hezekiah, whose father Ahaz had defiled the Temple.  After his death, Hezekiah purified and rededicated the Temple and the celebrations and dedication lasted not for seven but for eight days.   That is probably why our celebration of Chanukkah today lasts for eight days.

Although many people may imagine that the word Chanukkah has something to do with lights, in fact it means ‘dedication’ and refers to a ceremony that would have set apart the Temple and all its appurtenances for special use in the people’s worship of God.   But Chanukkah also means to ‘train’ or ‘educate’, in the sense of training or educating a child.  In our Liberal Judaism youth movement, the participants on the programmes are called ‘chanichim’ (from the same root as ‘Chanukkah’) – they are the young people who are trained from an early age through experience, learning, responsibility and leadership to become leaders, not only of the young people they are in charge of, but also of the Jewish community.

That journey takes eight years – from the age a child can attend Kadimah at eight years old, to the year in which they join their friends and leaders in a month’s tour in Israel.  In the years afterwards, many of the chanichim go on to become madrichim – ‘leaders’, and Roshim – ‘heads’.

Those who participate in LJY-Netzer’s spring and summer camps, weekends and later on, training sessions, emerge not only with deep and lasting friendships, but with an appetite for Jewish learning, an excitement about the ethical and philosophical aspects of Jewish teaching and the skills to educate informally and to lead others.

Often it is the chanichim and their leaders, not many years older than their charges, who remind us that Judaism, deeply rooted in the prophetic teachings of prophets such as Amos, Isaiah and Hosea – prophets who railed against the immorality, idolatry, injustice and lack of compassion in their time – is not only about numbers, but about the kind of world we wish to build together and the values on which it should be based.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukkah Sameach!

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