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  • Writer's pictureAaron Torop

The Real Meaning of Hanukkah

What is Hanukkah really about, anyway?

Every year when Hanukkah comes around, we get to revisit the age-old question, “What is Hanukkah about anyway?” The story of Hanukkah, like so much of our history, contains multiple themes and lessons. As you read each of the possibilities (and these are only some of them), which speaks to you the most this year?

Option #1: The meaning of Hanukkah is the importance of Jewish control in the Land of Israel. The Maccabees were fighting against the Greek proclamation that prohibited Jewish practices in Judea, the Land of Israel. Their rebellion against the Greeks demonstrates the importance for the Maccabees, and the Jews, of controlling their own land and being able to rule the land how they see fit. The story of Hanukkah reminds us to continue to pursue Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel.

Option #2: Hanukkah is all about the threat of assimilation! The Maccabees initially revolted not against the Antiochus, but against the Hellenized Jewish elite who had “lost their way.” The Hanukkah story is about what happens when Jews lose sight of their unique culture and totally adopt the surrounding culture. The Maccabees fought to maintain ‘pure’ Jewish practice. Today, when so much of what we see is about Christmas this time of year, Hanukkah reminds us of our Jewish pride and the importance of maintaining Jewish identity.

Option #3: The core message of Hanukkah is about inequality and democracy. The Maccabees were frustrated with the Hellenized elite who were favored by the Greek rulers and attempted to impose their Hellenized Judaism on the rest of the country. The Maccabees were defenders of the common Jew who leaned toward religious zealotry but didn’t have the means to fight against the elites backed by the Greeks. Hanukkah teaches us that a small group of people, committed to their ideals, can overcome money and power to win the day.

Option #4: Hanukkah is a holiday about feminism and female bodily autonomy. Two stories of women, Judith and Hannah, have at various times accompanied the celebration of Hanukkah. Judith, a widow living in the 6th Century BCE, lives in a town ready to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar. However, she does not give up, seducing Holofernes, a general, feeding him cheese to make him sleepy, and then decapitating him, inspiring a revolt.

Some Jews eat cheese on Hanukkah in her honor. The story of Hannah, which exists in various versions of midrash and rabbinic writing, is another example of a woman-led revolt. Hannah due to wed a Maccabee, until a Greek leader attempts to violate her the day before her marriage, as some (untrue) stories report was custom of the time. She instead martyrs herself in some versions, and strips in the public square in others to protest her treatment. Her outcry sparks the Maccabees to begin their revolt. When we remember these women, Hanukkah is a story of the power of women to shape the course of history and inspire action in their community.

Option #5: Hanukkah is a holiday to give thanks for the miracle of abundance. The rabbis of the Talmud first bring us the well-known story of the miracle of the oil: while only enough oil for one day was left in the Temple, it lasted for eight. This teaching of Hanukkah reminds us to be grateful for what we have and to recognize our abundance, even when it appears we have little. The miracle of Hanukkah is a reminder that out of little can come much.

So, which of these options match where you are this year? And, when you return to this next year, see if a different teaching from Hannukah inspires you. Chag Urim Sameach!

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