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The 411 on Hanukkah and Why It Matters for Jews and for America

What is Hanukkah and does it really matter? What if you’re not Jewish? Does it still matter? The answer is yes to all of the above. First some basic information.

Hanukkah 2011 begins on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which corresponds, this year to sundown on the evening of December 20th. Why does the holiday begin then – not at midnight? Because in the Jewish calendar, the day begins at sundown.

It’s actually pretty cool to imagine that something is beginning when most people think its ending. It’s about asserting new possibilities when others may not see them. It’s related to Christmas too, but more on that below.

What is the story of Hanukkah? The story of Hanukkah is that of a four-year war in the land of Israel, which lasted from 167 BCE - 163 BCE. Some accounts portray a battle between oppressed Jews and the imperialist descendants of Alexander the Great, when the latter became increasingly harsh with those living under their rule. Other accounts tell of what was essentially a civil war between those Jews who collaborated with their Pagan masters and those who did not. Either way, the holiday story culminates in the re-taking of the Jerusalem Temple and the re-establishment of its sacred service.

Why is Hanukkah eight days long? Hanukkah lasts eight days for two reasons, one well-known, and the other much less so. According the better known story, the holiday lasts eight days in honor of the eight days that oil, which should have lasted only one day, continued to burn in the newly re-dedicated Jerusalem Temple's menorah (sanctuary candelabrum).

According to a lesser known account in the Book of Maccabees (part of the Apocrypha -- writings which are part of the biblical canon for Catholics, but not for Jews and Protestants), when the Temple was taken back by the Jews, they celebrated the eight day holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles), which they had not been able to observe when Pagans controlled the institution. There is a good possibility that was the basis for declaring the new holiday of Hanukkah as an eight day festival.

What is the miracle of Hanukkah about which people speak? In addition to the classic miracle story of the oil lasting longer than it should have, there is the miracle that people dared to light that tiny bit of oil and trust that somehow things would work out.
Perhaps the enduring miracle which Hanukkah celebrates is that there is always more light than we first imagine and that the fuel to create it is really there when look we hard enough and dare to trust its power. Here’s where Hanukkah and Christmas, for all their difference, have a great deal in common.

While Hanukkah is not “the Jewish Christmas,” each tells a story of finding greater hope and salvation than one could reasonably expect, and of doing so in the most unlikely of places. Whether in a little jar of oil that lasted longer than it “should” have or through a newborn baby delivered in a Bethlehem, we are reminded that good things do come in very small packages when we open our eyes and our hearts enough.

At a time of increasingly hopelessness in our country – a time when people trust our government, our economy, our very future, less and less, both the Christmas story and the Hanukkah story have a lesson for all of us whether we believe them literally or not.

Did Jesus celebrate Hanukkah? Jesus, in all likelihood did observe Hanukkah. We can assume that virtually all Jews living in the first century of the Common Era would have celebrated Hanukkah. How they would have observed the day is more open to question, and they certainly did not know about dreidls (the spinning top associated with the holiday) or latkes (potato pancakes – a traditional holiday food because of the oil in which they are fried), because both of which are Yiddish words!

What is the most important Hanukkah custom? According to tradition, the most important Hanukkah practices are lighting the menorah and singing praise to God for the liberation brought by way of the victory and restoration of the Temple’s service.

One could certainly argue that the most important Hanukkah practices are whatever acts help us find the light in our lives and in our world, empower us to help others do the same, and celebrate those moments when we have done so. 

Hanukkah really is an amazing holiday – one that testifies to peoples' ability to create light where there is darkness, bring hope when most despair, and not only await the future, but create it. Whether one calls that the Hanukkah story, the Christmas narrative, or the American dream, I think we can all vote ‘yes’ to doing so.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.