Hanukkah (Second Edition) by Ron Wolfson by Ron Wolfson - Read Online

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The Art

of Hanukkah


What Is Hanukkah?

I don’t know what I think—but in the real world Hanukkah is a very important holiday and everybody goes crazy over Hanukkah because they get a lot of presents and they get to stuff their mouths with delicious food made with oil which makes them fat. I don’t know what it is for me.


What Is Hanukkah?

This simple question begins the Talmud’s brief discussion of Hanukkah. For those rabbinic sages in Babylonia who were busy creating the future of Judaism—the Judaism we now practice—the question was not rhetorical. It wasn’t for pedagogic purposes. Gathered in Babylonia, some three or four hundred years after the original event, the Rabbis had some serious questions about the true meaning of a holiday which was widely celebrated, but whose central message was less than clear. For the Rabbis the meaning and purpose of Hanukkah was indeed in doubt; so was its authenticity. Hanukkah wasn’t in the Torah, it wasn’t part of the Bible, it wasn’t a clear and obvious mitzvah (commandment) from God. Instead, Hanukkah celebrated the political and social independence of a country that had long since been destroyed. In many ways, it was false pride and an inappropriate reliance on the past memories of military victories which led to its fall. It made heroes of the Hasmonean dynasty, a dynasty which after the Judah generation turned into some of the cruelest and most hateful of all the Israelite kings. Yet, Hanukkah was something which every Jew celebrated; it was a very popular holiday. The Rabbis’ challenge was to give this common practice a viable meaning, one which was worth holding onto and celebrating.

Their solution was to center the celebration of Hanukkah on the miracle of the oil, an event which involved God’s intervention and kept the celebration’s central focus away from the Maccabees and their victories. It made Hanukkah a holiday celebrating how God helps us when our own strength fails us.

When we approached writing this book on modern Hanukkah practice, we began with the same question: What is Hanukkah? For us, too, the question was not a self-obvious introduction. It was not a pedagogic prompt. In our day and age, Hanukkah has become the premier public Jewish holiday, the one most obviously celebrated and the one whose practical meaning has become most obscure. More than fifteen hundred years in Christian society has shifted Hanukkah’s meaning and purpose. Hanukkah has grown and mutated, faced off against Christmas, retreated, and then reentered the struggle.

It is very clear to us that the true meaning of Hanukkah is again on the move, and with it, the ways Hanukkah is celebrated. In researching this book, as we have done with each of the other Art of Jewish Living volumes, we followed the rabbinic dictum: Tzei u’lemad, go and learn. As the Rabbis did when they faced problems of practice, we went and looked at what average Jews (and in our case, some very special Jews) were already doing. When we looked at their practice and their understandings, we found some very interesting common threads.

a. The very lack of definition of specific Hanukkah practice frees families and empowers tremendous creativity. In many senses, Hanukkah is a much more comfortable holiday because it doesn’t come with the same kinds of formal guidelines and expectations as does