Despite its length - a full eight days - Chanukah is a relatively minor part of the Jewish religious calendar. Especially in America, the holiday has grown enormously in significance over the past hundred years or so, but this is merely the reflected glow of Christmas, the Big Event of the majority culture. For observant Jews, Chanukah is a post-Biblical holiday, one that is not mentioned in the Scriptures - mainly because the events it commemorates occurred after the canon was finalized. The usual holiday restrictions against working, et al., are not in effect.
Chanukah is not the “Jewish Christmas,” as some misguided folks sometimes seem to think. And it does not - despite stories to the contrary - celebrate the apocryphal miracle of one day’s supply of sacred oil burning for a full eight days, long enough for more consecrated oil to be prepared. That is a story intended to provide a sense of wonder for the kiddies... but like many such stories, it has taken on the strength of urban legend. Alas that there is no snopes.com to refute religious mythology: If there were, they would have a full-time job.
The real miracle of Chanukah - the reason we light candles (one for each night, they shed a sweet light to remind us of years long ago, in the words of the song) - is a war fought against seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s the war fought by the Jewish zealots, led by Matityahu (Mattathias, in the Greek translation) and his sons, against the Greco-Syrian rulers of Judea who wanted to wipe out the practice of Judaism. It was the kind of underdog-versus overdog fight that generally results in the underdog getting his ass chewed off... but not this time. This time, the vastly outnumbered forces of the Jews delivered a sound thrashing to the Greeks. For not the first and not the last time, it was the kind of salvation that would inspire the popular Jewish dictum, “They tried to kill us; they failed; let’s eat.”
The Egyptians tried to break our spirit with institutionalized slavery.
The Greco-Syrians tried to break our connection with our faith.
Later, the Persians would simply try to murder us, as would the Nazis many hundreds of years later.
They all failed. And so we eat: matzoh and its derivatives (Passover), fried foods (Chanukah), hamantaschen (Purim).
The holiday liturgy tells the story quite succinctly:
(And) for the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our ancestors in those days, in this time.
In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan, the High Priest, the Hasmonean, and his sons - when the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of Your will - You in Your great mercy stood up for them in the time of their distress. You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah. For Yourself You made a great and holy Name in Your world, and for your people Israel You worked a great victory and salvation on this very day. Thereafter, Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your house, cleaned Your Temple, purified the site of Your Holiness, and kindled lights in the courtyards of Your Sanctuary; and they established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great name.
[Special addition to the daily Amidah prayer for Chanukah]
The story of Chanukah puts me in mind of another lopsided victory: the battle of Agincourt in 1415, so famously described by William Shakespeare in Henry V. The English forces led by King Harry were arrayed against a French army five times their number, and the likelihood that they would survive - much less win - was basically nil. Was it Harry’s rousing speech (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...”) on the eve of Saint Crispin’s Day or the hand of God that carried the English to an astonishing win? Who can tell?
There’s another connection, however tenuous, between Matityahu and Henry V. In Kenneth Branagh’s excellent 1989 film, the English soldiers carry away their dead and wounded after the battle, singing the Latin hymn Non Nobis. It is a powerful moment in the film, one that bears great emotional freight. Non Nobis, you may be interested to know, is the Latin translation of Psalm 115: “Not for us, Lord, not for us, but for Yourself win praise through Your love and faithfulness...” It’s a psalm we recite every day during Chanukah, and it is one that makes perfect sense when an Unlikely Victory comes your way.
No matter what your faith, may this season bring only good things to you!