The Festival of Lights

(Chanukkah)

 

Drawing on ancient sources - How do we celebrate Festival of Lights / Chanukkah?

 

Introduction

Many in the Jewish community today feel that Chanukkah - the Festival of Lights - has lost its meaning. There is a feeling that it has become too much like 'the other festival' (you know the one!) in order to compete with it. In doing so, modern trends have succeeded in assimilating a festival that was supposed to celebrate a fight to reject the abandonment and assimilation of Jewish ways.

Although the festival is not a biblically-ordained one, the Miqra does allow for 'Days of Joy' (see Numbers 10:10, where these are mentioned). These are days of national rejoicing. In Temple times, there were many such days, days on which it was forbidden to hold personal fasts.

So how should we reform this festival? In the 1990's, modern Followers of the Way decided to go back to ancient sources for inspiration.

The Festival of Lights in ancient times

Since Chanukkah was a celebration of the victory of the Hasmoneans, it was originally not popular with the Pharisees; they viewed the descendents of the Hasmonean family as corrupt. As a result, very little was said about the Hasmonean revolt or Chanukkah itself in early Pharisaic writings.

However, it seems to have remained a popular national festival with ordinary people. The Second Book of Maccabees describes how people took leafy boughs and the fronds of palms, and sang hymns of praise to God (2Macc 10:7)

Josephus says that at the first Hanukkah, when the altar of the holy Temple was being rededicated, people "celebrated the festival of the restoration of the offerings in the Temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon, but he [Judah Maccabee] feasted them [his soldiers and the people] upon very rich and splendid offerings." (Antiquities, book XII, chapter VII, passage 7).

In Josephus' day, it was called the Festival of Lights (Chag ha-Neirot, or more strictly, 'Festival of Lamps'). He didn't know why it had been given that name, however. He writes: "I suppose the reason was, because this freedom [to offer sacrifices] appeared to us beyond our hopes." (Ant, XII, VII, 7).

It's possible that the `lights' refer to ancient miracles, such as when Moses dedicated Aaron and his sons as priests in the desert. On the eighth and final day of the dedication, a fire descended from heaven and consumed the offerings on the altar (Lev 9:1, 24). This miracle occurred again when Solomon dedicated his altar for eight days (2Chr 7:1, 9). The book of 2 Maccabees gives these events as reason for eight days of Channukah; dedication was an 8-day process, and the rededication ('chanukkah') of the altar by Judah Maccabee, took place from the 25th of Kislev for 8 days. 2Macc also mentions the miracle  of the fire of Nehemiah, when naphtha poured on the altar suddenly ignited.

There is a special prayer called `Al ha-Nissim ('We thank you for the Miracles'), that is recited by some Jewish people during the festival. It tells of how, while the Temple was being rededicated, lamps were kindled and placed all around the Temple courts. If this story is true, what a beautiful sight it must have been!

The Lamps

In ancient times, the tradition of lamps during the festival doesn't seem to have been connected with the Temple menorah. In the Late Second Temple Period, the tradition of lighting lights or lamps wasn't very widespread (consider how, for example, Josephus not knowing why it was called the Festival of Lamps). However, the practise did exist. Archaeologists have found special clay and stone lamps from the period. However, they have nothing to do with the menorah, nor do they even look like the Temple menorah. The lamps are long and rectangular in design, with eight parallel depressions for oil and wicks. And there is no "Shamash" or servant light. In fact, in Iraq and Persia right up to the early 20th century, Jews there still used to have these lamps. The practise of having a chanukiyah shaped like a menorah is a comparatively recent, European, Ashkenazi custom. The only consideration is that there be a row of eight lights.

A second Sukkot

There are many features of the festival which are similar to Sukkot; in fact, the author of 2Maccabees considered it a second Sukkot. They would carry branches of leafy trees and palms, and sing psalms of praise, as at Sukkot. Certain customs for Sukkot therefore got transferred to Hanukkah.

One delightful custom during Temple times, was that giant Menorahs (that is, of the normal seven branched variety) would be lit in the Temple courts, their branches terminating in huge cups, into which the finest olive oil was poured. Four long ladders were placed against each menorah, so that priests could climb them to add oil continually to keep the lamps burning. Apparently the wicks needed to be enormous, so the worn out garments of the priests were twisted and used as wicks!

The light from these lamps attained such an intensity, that much of Jerusalem was lit up by them. Then there was a torch dance, where young men enter the central courts, and acrobatically threw torches into the air and skilfully caught them. And among these torch throwers, there were dancers and singers. It was said that anyone who had not witnessed it had not seen what real festivity was. (Joseph Hochman, Jerusalem
Temple Festivities).

The Dedication of a
Temple

I also think that the fashion in which a Temple was usually dedicated will also serve to give us some ideas on what genuine Jewish customs to include in our reform.

The second reason why we have eight days in the festival, is that this was the length of time it took usually to dedicate the altar and the Temple.

The best example is in 1Kings chapter 8, where King Solomon dedicates the First
Temple. The Ark of the Covenant was carried in great ceremony and procession by the priests to the Holy of Holies, the building was anointed with oil and consecrated, solemn prayers were said, and sacrifices were made - not just of animals, but of grain too.

In Zerubbavel's time, when the Second Temple was dedicated (Nehemiah 12:27-43), thanksgiving hymns were sung, there were enormous choirs of people singing psalms, all to the music of cymbals, flutes, harps and lyres.

Speculation on the original, pre-Maccabean Festival of Lights

The Maccabees apparently took over an existing Judean festival. They transferred the annual celebration of the rededication of the Temple onto a festival that already was popular among ordinary people. I would therefore like to speculate on what that was for.

As I have previously said, Chanukkah was supposed to have been a second Sukkot. I think this was part of the original reasoning of the pre-Maccabean festival. One purpose of Sukkot is to pray for rain, and therefore a successful planting and harvesting. Once the fields are seeded, then there would often be little work for poor day labourers. Those who lived hand to mouth, would have had little opportunity to put by for the winter.

Perhaps the impetus to observe Sukkot a second time was that there may have been a few years when there had been no rain, and therefore this would have impacted on the subsequent crops. If this happened, then the poor particularly would have been affected. Celebrating it a second might have been an oportunity to ask God to bring the Spring rains.

During the period when the Jewish religion was forbidden, such a prosciption would have had far-reaching consequences. For example, the poor laws (the laws on tsedaqah) would not have been able to function, the debt-cancellation laws would not have been put into effect, and the land would not have been given a chance to lie fallow during Sabbatical years. This would have resulted in severe hardship for the poor in winter, and if the land suffered years of drought or bad harvest, traditionally-minded people would have secretly blamed the fact that they were not able to celebrate any of the harvest festival to Yahveh.

We know that giving charity is part of this festival. Even though all Jewish cultural customs were forbidden by the Hellenistic Syrians, they couldn't forbid the moral and ethical aspect of the Israelite religion. If you couldn't observe kosher or the Sabbath, you could observe charity in witness to YHVH. Perhaps it became a practice for the pious and well-off to keep 8 lamps in one's window. Perhaps it served as a secret sign, meaning, 'If you are poor and hungry, and come to my house, I will give you food and clothing to help get you by during the winter.'

Based on that premise, it is now customary in our community to give presents of either food, clothing or money. Also, on the New Moon of Tevet, which occurs during the festival, it is considered a pious act to give food, clothing or money to the poor and homeless. If you wish to have a day of rest for family, then the New Moon of Tevet is a good opportunity for such (all New Moons are holy days and days of rest).

The real Miracle

If we return to the Maccabean version of the festival, the real miracle was not the fictional vial, but that God managed to save the Israelite religion from extinction. The primary purpose of the Israelite religion is to act as an eternal witness to the existence and power of YHVH - YHVH, who is a living God who promises and then does, who speaks, and it is fulfilled. Most people celebrate the Maccabees at this time, their triumph and their victory. But we should always remember, that it was not through any ability, strength, or cunning they possessed that they triumphed, but by the power of YHVH alone. YHVH is forever, therefore the Way of YHVH has to be forever.

God made a Covenant with us, to preserve us as a people forever, and to give us the land of Canaan forever. God instructed us to follow this way of life forever – into all eternity, so that this way would stand out as a single line of witness throughout all history. For as long as we followed this way – the Way of YHVH – it would be proof throughout all time of the power and the presence of YHVH, that He could keep His promise against all odds, and maintain His side of the Covenant throughout all time, even if Israel broke her side of the Covenant.

The Way of YHVH was intended to be forever. If it proves anything else - if it is made extinct, if people everywhere stop following it, then its demise is proof to the contrary – that our God is not holy – that He is in fact the same as any pagan god, that He is false, and that His words are empty.

The Syrian oppression tested YHVH’s power and His promise. The Syrians were far mightier and more numerous than the Maccabees and their followers. God intended it that way so that the events of the revolt could be an undeniable manifestation of His power and reputation. The few overcame the many, but only because of God’s help.

As long as the Israelite religion – as long as the Way of YHVH – endures, God’s promises, His word and His existence all prove true.

Suggestions for our celebration of Hanukkah / Festival of Lights

Bringing together the various threads and themes mentioned above, I would like to suggest the following for your personal enjoyment and celebration of the Festival of Lights:

  • That it is primarily a victory celebration, of the right to observe and follow our religion, rededicating our lives to God's ways
  • That we celebrate God's ability to look after us and save us, even in the most trying of times
  • That we celebrate the 'miracle' as how God saved the Israelite religion from extinction - how the few overcame the many, but only with God's help
  • That as a secondary theme, harking back to the pre-Maccabean Festival of Lights, it is a time to remember how God provides for us and gives of His gifts, even in difficult times
  • That there is charity and gift giving, restricted in nature to food, clothing and money
  • That there is feasting and joyous celebration (see the Chanukkah Seder)
  • That there is singing (if you know any songs) and music
  • That we decorate our homes (particularly the room where we are going to hold the Seder) with greenery, either real or artificial, as if it were a sukkah (booth)
  • That we decorate our homes with lights, as well as lighting eight lights or lamps on the first night, decreasing to one lamp on the last night (according to the older, Shammaite custom).

After your seder on the first night, ensure that you arrange for charity to be given to the poor (either that very night, or at a later date). The New Moon of Tevet will be the only religious holiday of the season (when no work is done). Since in ancient times, families chose New Moon holidays throughout the year for clan gatherings, might I suggest having a meal with your extended family in the afternoon of the Tevet New Moon. You can also use this day (ie rather than the first night) to give your gifts to family members. Having given help to others first, the gifts to one's own family later is more meaningful.

However you choose to celebrate it, remember that since the festival is outside of the bounds of Torah and the rest of the Miqra (bible), there are no real commandments involved. It is not supposed to be a 'holy' festival (ie one ordained by God), and there is no right or wrong way to observe it, only an honest way of remembering why we celebrate Hanukkah - a 'Day of Joy'.

 

 

 

   
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