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Correcting Mistakes About Hanukkah

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Despite extensive media coverage and rising levels of public partying, the holiday of Hanukkah still causes confusion among both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans. No, it’s not a festival of tolerance or a good-natured celebration of freedom of religion.  In fact, the authentic meaning of Hanukkah actually counts as far less politically correct than commonly assumed — and far more appropriate as a counterweight to the joyously seductive, warm-hearted and near universal embrace of Christmas.

The two biggest mistakes about Hanukkah involve the twin assumptions that the holiday honors the principles of religious liberty and that the central miracle commemorated in Jewish homes recalls a magical jar of oil that lasted longer than expected. Neither of these ideas originates from Jewish tradition or connects with the authentic celebration of the Hanukkah festival under Jewish law.

Of course, it might count as far more appealing to modern sensibilities if the ancient Maccabee warriors conformed to the ideals of today’s pluralism but the historical and religious record show a very different approach. Hanukkah celebrates the victory of religious zealots in 163 BC who liberated Jerusalem and its holy temple from Syrian-based Greek imperialists and their Hellenized Jewish allies. The insurrectionists weren’t merely demanding the right to practice their own religion according to their conscience — though that right had, in fact, been cruelly denied. They meant to drive the Greeks and their Jewish, accommodationist allies out of their holy places and their holy city.  These Hasmonean fighters weren’t fans of compromise, or blending of cultural traditions. They fought for religious purity and clarity, not pluralism.

The only aspect of traditional Jewish liturgy specifically associated with Hanukkah is the “Al ha Nissim/On the Miracles” declaration inserted into the morning, afternoon and evening prayers during all eight days of the holiday. This portion of the liturgy thanks God for “the victories, and the battles which you performed for our forefathers in those days, at this season” and describes how “the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against your people Israel to make them forget your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of your will.”  Traditional Jews praise God for “delivering the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of your Torah.”

Far from a victory for tolerance, or for the ideals of moral relativism, Hanukkah counts as a commemoration of fervent, unwavering religious commitment and Jewish particularism. It emphasizes the ancient covenant demanding that Jews differentiate themselves from their pagan neighbors – and oppressors. To the frustration of most Jewish Americans (who tilt irrationally but stubbornly to the left), this is a holiday far more in line with underlying messages of today’s religious right than the secularist sentiments of the ACLU.

The second mistake about Hanukkah involves the “miracle of the oil” — the well-known story about the Maccabees rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem and finding only one container of olive oil to light the sacred Menorah. That small jar of oil, however, lasted for an astonishing eight days, until more oil could arrive to keep the “eternal light” of the Temple from flickering to extinction. It’s a lovely story, taken from traditional sources, and it’s often used to make reassuring and appropriate points about Jewish survival: like the little jar of oil, nobody thought we could last for more than one day (or one era) but we have confounded expectations by lasting for millennia and maintaining our national existence through all eras of history.

But the tale and its meaning leave one obvious question unanswered. Jerusalem in the second century BC was a big city — as it is today. The surrounding countryside contained an abundance of olive groves, as it does today. In this heavily-populated area, how could the victorious Maccabees fail to find enough olive oil to keep a single lamp alight for more than a day?

The answer actually goes to the deeper meaning of the holiday. The problem with the oil the religious rebels found when they recaptured the Temple didn’t involve its quantity, but its quality – in particular, its purity. There was, presumably, plenty of olive oil in Judea, but after the Syro-Greek occupation, none of it met the exacting standards of sanctity, in both preparation and storage, demanded for Temple use. Exposure to the idol worship that formerly prevailed in the sanctuary would have been considered contaminating, making the fuel unacceptable and unusable. The miracle involved both the good fortune of finding one uncontaminated jar of oil to light the Menorah immediately, as well as its ability to last until new oil could be produced from scratch that met the rigorous requirements of Jewish law.

In other words, we celebrate not just the need to keep the light alive through any means necessary, but the specific demand to light the Temple (and through it, the world) through the demanding standards of Torah.

Naturally, it’s easier for parents today to concentrate on latkes (potato pancakes), dreidls(spinning tops), Hanukkah gelt (pieces of chocolate wrapped in gold foil to look like coins) and the over-the-top, inauthentic American tradition of giving a new gift each of the eight nights. It’s tougher to teach kids about the real Maccabees, who were, in fact, tough and courageous people, determined to root out enemies – particularly internal enemies – to the maintenance of their ancient faith. But remembering the true Hanukkah spirit requires a distinctive emphasis on religious rigor and the pursuit of purity, uncontaminated by pagan or secular influence. In other words, the point of the holiday is something much more than offering some exotic Middle Eastern or Eastern European version of Christmas, with its agreeable peace-on-earth-to-people-of-good-will theme.

The Hanukkah message emphasizes that we’re supposed to be different – no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable or challenging that might be.

This column appeared at on December 10, 2014. 

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Comments (15)

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  1. Steve Hommel  •  Dec 17, 2014 at 7:43 am

    Speaking as a Christian, I thought the explanation on the real meaning of Hanukkah was excellent! It was both educational and affirming, and I sympathize….The real and tradition meanings for all of our (your) holidays are under assault by (dare I say it) godless politically correct revisionists. Happy Hanukkah!

  2. tzefanYah  •  Dec 18, 2014 at 6:09 pm

    We know that the spirit of antichrist abounds, and we also can glean from Scripture that Messiah Yeshua was conceived at Khannukah so we shouldn’t be surprised that Khannukah is a blessing to celebrate and also that there is another day that detracts from it.

  3. Duke Woodhull  •  Dec 19, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Thanks, Michael, that was a fascinating explanation!

  4. steve woita  •  Dec 19, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Chag sameach, Michael & all observers of Chanukah!
    Thanx for great explanation. It brings light to our own American situation. This follower of Y’shua also lights Chanukah candles. The meaning is so rich! Bvrachot!
    Eitan Hativ.

  5. Nancy Strom  •  Dec 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    This, as with all of the historical information you give to us, is a fascinating, and much appreciated, description of the true meaning of Hanukkah.
    Thank you.

  6. Daniel Stackhouse  •  Dec 19, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    Michael, I found your explanation of Hanukkah to be very informative and uplifting. The Maccabees reminded me of the Puritans in colonial Massachusetts who, as you explained in your history programs, wanted religious purity and not some modern notion of a watered-down spirituality. Thank you!

  7. margaret anne hill  •  Dec 19, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    I tend to notice value-loaded terms such as “joyously seductive.” It helps me identify bias. Michael, in your book, Deuteronomy 18:15-18, God says He will send Himself as a Prophet, and put his name and words in that Prophet’s mouth. How Jews can ignore this prophecy from the book they revere, baffles me. Jehovah IS Jesus! And therefore, Jesus the Christ is not joyously seductive. He is the indwelling Spirit of God, the Prince of Peace.

    • P Pentecost  •  Dec 29, 2014 at 4:50 am

      My sister, while it is good to study the very texts Messiah read from, one must be sure to quote correctly. G-d would “send a Prophet ‘like me’ (Moses) from among your brothers.”

      “How Jews can ignore this prophecy from the book they revere, baffles me.” Might I suggest you read Deuteronomy 13, concerning false prophets? Read v.3-4 again and think of how the church portrays Jesus, Yeshua, as having done away with the Law even after He said He did NOT come to do that. Couple that with the way the church has treated the Jewish people over the last 2,000 years and one wonders how any Jewish man or woman could ever come to believe Yeshua is Messiah. But praise be to G-d our Father there are some, in spite of all that has been done to their ancestors in His name. I know, for I fellowship with some who are local to me.

      Yeshua and his disciples did bible things in bible ways as Torah observant Jews. They did not take upon themselves Greek culture (dress, language, thought), even after the resurrection. They were, and always will be, Hebrews.

      My sister, in the future, be kind and merciful and a bit less accusative. Romans 11. Sh’ma.

  8. Ratisbone  •  Dec 19, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Same thing has happend to Christmas – Christmas is truely and exclusevily a Catholic Holy Day (Holiday) to celebrate the “joy” of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity becoming flesh to eventaully die for our sins (Catholic and non Catholic alike) . Therefore a special Christ-Mas (Mass -the offerring of the body and blood of the Son of God to the God the Father). Most Christians (and sadly many watered down Catholics) do not know what the mean when they say the word “Christ Mass”

  9. Earl Chantrill  •  Dec 19, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    Thank you for the explanation. I do not believe that Jesus Christ was born during Hanukkah, but during Passover and his illegal crucifixion was also during Passover, as attested in the New Testament Gospels.

  10. kick  •  Dec 27, 2014 at 1:34 am

    Well, myths abound in every religion.

    In the Latin speaking Roman Catholic Church and schools I was raised in we were all told that Peter was the first Pope and solely empowered with the gifts Jesus brought. And also that Jesus was the first Roman Catholic.

    The fact that in linear time the first Latin Church pope was a Roman lawyer named Leo who established a new Latin speaking religion in Rome in the 5th century simply enrages most Catholics when informed.

    Jesus taught we His followers to both seek and speak the truth but merely religious people have the hardest time accepting it.

    May God bless you for doing your part in sharing what is historically true.

  11. Linda  •  Dec 27, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    Lance Wallnau reposted your article which gave more insight. I had gone to a messianic synagogue for about 5 years so I learned things about the Jewish people that I didn’t know. Mainstream Christianity doesn’t teach about the Jewish people even though the roots of Christianity come from Judaism. But I digress. I’m sure you know these things. I mainly wanted to tell you thanks for the explanation. I think God is requiring this of all of His people but we’ve gotten so mixed in with the secular that you can’t tell God’s people from those who don’t know Him. Our pastor has been teaching alot about idolatry. This is where the separation occurs. God bless you for speaking up. I used to listen to you a lot on the radio but lost track of you when you weren’t on the station I normally listened to. Thanks again!

  12. Fred Sisneros  •  Jan 2, 2015 at 3:29 am

    It’s great that Judaism has helped pave the way for humanity to be more civilized. Judaism influenced Paul to write Ephesians 1:8, 1:18. I like the Gideon Bible version of Ephesians. Thank You, Many Blessings!

  13. Charlotte Herr  •  Oct 5, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    Thanks for the clarification!

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