Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Eight fun facts of Chanuka

Put on your yarmulke, Here comes Hanukkah! So much funukah, To celebrate Hanukkah! 
 - Adam Sandler

Of all the holidays, Chanuka has always been my favorite. Courage, miracles, good guys, bad guys, soofganiyot, chocolate coins, and a week off school. What could be bad?

Of course, the greatest miracle of Chanuka is not gaining weight from all the latkes and donuts. I have it on excellent sources that during the holiday itself, calories evaporate.

The other greatest miracle is that we are still here, over 2000 years after Yehuda HaMacabi, lighting candles, remembering the Holy Temple and - even a greater miracle - doing so, once again, in our Land.

The story of Chanuka is one, not of victory, as is usually assumed (the war was eventually lost), but of hope. When it's the darkest, even a spark can dispel it; we have only but to light it.

One of the ways to celebrate Chanuka is learn about the holiday. So here are eight fun facts - one for each night - that you may or may not know. Please feel free to add your own.

1. The word dreidel is Yiddish, and means to spin. It is said that, in the time of the Greek occupation of the Holy Land, because Torah study was outlawed, youth would gather to learn in secret and bring games – sometimes a spinning top made of clay – with them. If foreign soldiers found them, they would seemingly be playing innocent sports. Therefore, the game of dreidel dreidel dreidel is over 2000 years old and still popular. Even if it’s not dry and ready.




2. A Menorah and a Chanukiah are NOT the same thing. The Menorah – a seven branched candelabra – was lit by the High Priest daily in the Holy Temple. It was made from one solid block of gold, and originally designed and built by Bezalel in the desert. Under Greek occupation, the Temple was profaned, and the ceremony was stopped. When the Temple was reclaimed by the Maccabees, the Menorah was once again relit with the famous pure bottle of oil that was found and which lasted eight days. A Chanukiah – a nine branched candelabra – is what we light to remember the Menorah. (A copy of the Temple Menorah has been rebuilt – at the reputed cost of three million dollars – and is on display on the stairs leading to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.)




3. The tradition of giving gifts – usually coins (or gelt—money in Yiddish) – to children was to reward them for learning Torah and to teach them to give tzadaka – charity. Keeping up with Xmas had nothing to do with it. Chocolate is good too. 



4. The Maccabean war against the Greeks was actually a civil war against Hellenized (i.e., assimilated) Jews. Many Jews, it seemed, wanted to be more Greek than the Greeks, and thought the ‘Orthodox Jews’ antiquated, primitive, and barbaric. They dismissed the practice of Brit Mila (it spoils the 'perfect form'), desecrated the Sabbath (time cannot be holy, only men and the gods), ridiculed the laws of modesty (they played sports in the nude as was Greek custom, showing off the 'perfect form'), and dishonored the Holy Torah (reading, instead, the Greek plays and legends). The Maccabees brought Jewish life back to the HolyLand. Over the years, this bit of the story was overlooked, mostly because it was considered 'unpleasant' to bring up the fact of internecine fighting.  


This would have gone down well. 

5. The Greeks were actually Seleucids (and not Greek at all), whose center of power was in today’s Syria (and not Athens) and, at the time of the Chanuka story, was ruled by Antiochus IV. He added the name ‘Epiphanes’ to his own—meaning God’s Manifest. However, the Jews called him Epimames–the mad-man. He was not a very nice man.

Bust of Antiochus IV

6. The Maccabees weren’t really an army. If they were around today, chances are they would look like a cross between charedim and IDF soldiers. (Something to think about.)




something like this

7. Chanuka is the only Jewish holiday without its own book to read. The Book of Maccabees, which tells of the early wars and the rededication of the Temple and other stories associated with the wars, was originally written in Hebrew, but survived only in Greek. (It's been re-translated back into Hebrew, English, and other languages). For various reasons, it was not included in the canonization of the Bible. 



in Latin

in Greek



8. The Maccabean revolt lasted over 20 years. The re-dedication of the Temple occurred, probably, in the third year. The leader of the revolt, Matityahu, died in the first year. His sons took over, with Yehuda the Maccabbee leading. Yehuda was killed shortly after the rededication of the Temple. Of the five sons, only one – Shimon – survived the wars. He ushered in 80 years of Jewish independence, until infighting, dissension, and sedition allowed the Roman army to occupy the country, leading to the eventual destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from their Land.




There is another custom, one my friend E told me about and I wrote about here, and that is to describe, while the candles are burning, a miracle that happened to you. This is to publicize G-d mercy and greatness; that His miracles are are around us.

So while you're at it, feel free to tell me miracles.

Wishing all of Am Yisrael a happy and blessed Chanuka.





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