Hanukkah: The Jewish Christmas?

Hanukkah or Chanukah is the Jewish festival of dedication. It is also known as the festival of lights. It is celebrated from the 25th of Kislev to the 3rd of Tevet. It is one of the more widely known Jewish holidays in North America because of its proximity to Christmas. However, there is still a lot of confusion by those outside the Jewish faith as to exactly what Hanukkah is and what it celebrates. Hanukkah is a festival that stems from an event in history known as the Maccabean Revolt. Antiochus IV was the ruler of the Seleucid dynasty, which was part of the remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire. Antiochus began taking great measures against traditional Jewish practices by outlawing Jewish rituals and ordering them to worship Greek gods. In 168 BC, Antiochus seized the temple and dedicated it to the worship of Zeus. At this point, it is said that Antiochus offered a pig on the altar of the temple. This sparked a revolt by the Jews that eventually succeeded in 165 BC. Upon recapturing the temple, the Jews cleansed the temple and decided to hold a ceremony to rededicate the temple to the service of the LORD. The Talmud records that at this point there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. The menorah, however, miraculously burned for eight days.

Hanukkah commemorates this miracle at the rededication of the temple with an eight day celebration and a special menorah with eight branches—one for each day of the celebration (see video below).

This is where many people’s knowledge of Hanukkah ends and where the questions begin. For this reason, I decided it most appropriate to seek out and ask these questions to a Jewish Rabbi. So I would like to introduce you to my guest, Rabbi Leonard Zukrow of the Temple Beth-El in Pensacola, FL. My questions are bold and italic, while Rabbi Zukrow's follow in normal font.

Should we call the candelabra a menorah or a hanukkiah?
The menorah is a seven branched candelabra that stood in the Temple. The Chanukah menorah, known in Hebrew as a Chanukiah is eight branched to mark the eight days of the festival. There is one additional candle known as the “shamash” which is the “helper” candle used to light the other candles.

Has the celebration of Hanukkah changed over the years?
Yes, as is the case with most Jewish festivals. We retain the core practices – in the case of Chanukah – lighting the chanukia – and we build upon and expand the observance through foods associated with the festival, songs, stories, images, and new innovations that enrich our observance.

Is gift giving part of the Hanukkah celebration?
Yes, it was a custom to receive “Chanukah gelt” – a silver coin. In North America within the “season of giving” associated with the Christmas season, gift giving has expanded with the celebration of Chanukah. Traditionally and in Israel the practice of gift giving takes place at Rosh haShanah (The New Year) and Purim (The Feast of Esther).

What is the purpose of the gifts and what is the manner in which the gifts are given? For example, does the value or number of gifts increase or decrease each day?
Again, the practice of gift giving is more an American practice and it has evolved to gift giving on each night of Chanukah. Today, many families are forgoing gifts and offering contributions to various causes and organizations in place of personal gifts.

How much of the American celebration of Christmas do Jews participate (Christmas trees, Santa Clause, Christmas lights, etc.)?
There are accounts of Jews who participate in Christmas, most common is having a tree. Those Jews who do this see the tree and the Christmas season as a secular event. As a rabbi, I want Jews to celebrate Chanukah and as a rabbi, I want Christians to truly celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. I fully support putting Christ back into Christmas, observing Christmas in church and at home. As Christmas moved into the public square it has become more secular and national, and less religious.

Is it appropriate for me (a Christian) or someone of a different faith to wish a Jew “Happy Hanukkah”?
Yes, it is welcomed. I do not have an issue with wishing you a Merry Christmas. The holiday you celebrate IS Christmas. However, I and most Jews and those who do not observe Christmas seek acknowledgement for who we are and that we are unique.

What do you feel is the most misunderstood or misrepresented aspect of Hanukkah?
That it is the “Jewish Christmas” because of the shared season and calendar. Chanukah is not a biblical holiday, it is a celebration of an historical event, similar to our Independence Day of July 4th. July 4th is a unique American festival, we mark it and have our traditions associated with it – however, for the rest of the world July 4th is another day on their calendar.

Is it okay for Christians to celebrate Hanukkah? Why or why not?
Chanukah is more like a Jewish independence day for its time, it celebrates a return to the practice of Jewish ritual life at the Temple. The Maccabees were a priestly family – they fought to re-establish the rituals of Jewish sacrifice at the Temple. Non-Jews were not obligated nor permitted to offer sacrifices at the Temple. Thus, one could assert from a limited perspective that Chanukah is a Jewish festival for Jews. There is a wonderful story of non Jews in Montana who all engaged in lighting menorahs in support of the Jews of their town who were being persecuted by anti- Semites. When non-Jews light a menorah for this purpose most Jews would welcome this.

I would like to thank Rabbi Zukrow for his willingness to participate and answer my questions. I would also like to thank everyone who submitted questions to me about Hanukkah. Hopefully everyone now has a better understanding of Hanukkah, what it celebrates, and how it is celebrated.
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