Illustration: Hanukkiah at the Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem (Image Credit: Ari Yashar ©2020, screenshot Kakehashion: Experience the Hanukkah Light Festival in Jerusalem! 07:23)
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה'' אֱלֹקינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה
Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.
Second blessing on the Hanukkah candles
No holiday is more universally celebrated than Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights. Jewish families throughout the world gather around their hanukkiahs to sing the festive holiday blessings and light the candles. In nearly every major public space, local Jewish communities light candles on large hanukkiahs for everyone to see. Children of all ages eagerly run to spin dreidels — or s'vivonim as they are known in Israel. They eagerly wait for chocolate Hanukkah gelt (coins).
Some families give their children presents during this eight day holiday season. The candle lighting ceremony and dreidel games are usually followed by a dinner featuring potato latkes (pancakes), dipped in applesauce, and yummy oil-made sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts). The famous Hanukkah story of Judah and the Maccabees is told and holiday songs are sung.
While this all might be nice, enjoyable — and perhaps even fattening — fun, what’s the authentic Jewish message behind Hanukkah that’s being ignored? Is the Hanukkah holiday just about eating oily latkes, jelly-filled sufganiyot and engaging in dreidel-spinning contests?
Actually, there has never been a more important and relevant Jewish holiday for the Jews of our time than that of Hanukkah. What was miraculous about Hanukkah? Any child knows that the apparently weaker Jews miraculously defeated the powerful Greeks. It is a historical fact that cannot be denied.
Hanukkah, however, is not a holiday of the past — it is the past and the constant present. The events that occurred on Hanukkah and led to its commemoration as a permanent Jewish holiday, happen again and again. In every generation, the Jews have an opportunity to seize ‘freedom’ and escape the yoke of heaven. Hanukkah marks the permanent war between the Jews of authentic Torah Judaism and the Jews who seek ‘Hellenism’. That struggle is as relevant today as it was more than 2,000 years ago. “Those days” are always in “this time.”
Today’s times and those of the Maccabees parallel each other in both the problem and the solution. At that time, the Greeks ruled; in every part of their empire, they wanted to establish what they saw as their superior culture as the dominant force. In the case of Israel, that meant abolishing Judaism altogether. The number of Hellenistic Jews leaving their faith to embrace the so-called beauty and enlightenment of Greek culture increased until that group, which adopted materialism and physicality, became the dominant culture in Israel. Fearing the harsh edicts of the Greek Empire, Hellenistic Jews increased among the Jewish people, including even the most powerful families.
For years the people of Judea had been the vassals of Greece. True independence was unknown for decades; yet, the Jews did not rise in revolt. Only when Greek policy shifted from mere political control to suppression of the Jewish religion, did a revolt erupt in all its bloodiness. It was not mere freedom that ignited the Maccabean uprising that we so passionately applaud. We are cheering for a brave group of Jews who fought and plunged Judea into a bloodbath to keep the right to observe Shabbat, to follow the laws of kashrut, and to obey the laws of the Torah.
In fact, Hanukkah commemorates quite a fanatical and illiberal event. A few — the Maccabees — stood up against the mighty Greek army for many years. They had no feasible chance of winning. What a miracle! How did it enter the minds of a few Jews, faithful to G-d and His Torah, to enter battle under such impossible circumstances following the command of Yehuda the Maccabee and his brothers? Wasn't this a suicide mission?
In many ways, it appeared to be so; yet this was the very pre-condition for enabling such a victory to occur. The essential miracle of Hanukkah was not a war victory, but rather the fact that a few Jews realized that "things could not continue this way;" they rose up and, with immense faith in the Almighty, declared war on the superpower of their day. Prior to their defeat of an awesome enemy, they surely did not know that the Almighty would perform a miracle for them. Nevertheless, they went out. It was an act of immense courage, bravery and mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice).
The struggle began when the Greek enemy sent troops to Modi’in to set up an idol and demand its worship. A Jew decided to take up the offer to exercise his ‘freedom’ to choose paganism and approached the altar to sacrifice an animal to the Greek god. It wasn’t a Greek soldier who was killed by the courageous Matityahu — as he shouted, “Whoever is for G-d, follow me” — but rather an apostate Jew, a religious traitor to his own heritage and people. Today’s world would look upon this as extreme religious intolerance and bigotry. How is it that we cling to this holiday as a model of the kind of Judaism we wish to observe and pass on to our children?
The Maccabee Hasmoneans struggled against the Greeks' attempt to uproot authentic Judaism and to introduce paganism, which they recognized as immorality and perversion of Jewish values. They smashed pagan idols and refused to allow Jews the opportunity to worship them. They fought the Hellenists until those perverse Jews were finally eliminated by the Hasmonean Simon — even from their strongholds in Acra, Gazara, and Bethsur — cementing the victory.
The Jews of Hanukkah “in those days” were not fighting for “pluralism.” They were fighting against it. They were fighting for authentic Judaism against those Jews who sought to change it. They were fighting against ‘freedom of conscience’ and ‘universal values’ — rightly seeing them as heresy and paganism. Their revolt was directed against other Jews, who had deviated from Judaism.
Today’s authentic Torah observant Jew faces the same struggle against the modern ‘Hellenizers’ of Judaism. Hanukkah is not a universal holiday; it’s a Jewish one, demanding that the Jews of our time celebrate it properly and take its deep lesson to heart. Its painful truth for the ‘Hellenistic’ Jew of today is to break free of the Hellenism “in this time,” which corrupts and perverts authentic Judaism.
The inflexible contradictions between Judaism and Western secularism are to be seen, heard, and felt for the good of the Jewish people. Our survival lies in understanding who we are and why we are — a lesson given to us by Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is the holiday for these days — for today’s courageous Jews who will cling to eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) no matter what it takes. Today’s ‘Hellenistic’ Jews say, “If you are not ready to give away the Land, you will deal with the enemy by yourselves; we don’t have your faith; we are afraid of what will come.” And the precious few — inspired by their pristine faith in the Almighty — will arise to repel the enemy.
Those with clear Jewish vision foresee the Maccabean war of our generation. At least at the outset, only a few will take part. Jews of rock-solid faith in the G-d of Israel, who sincerely believe that G-d is a loyal defender of His people Israel, will be the example for the multitudes who will follow — "in those days, at this time."
As an 18-year-old, Michael Miller made aliyah with his family from New York. A resident of Jerusalem, he served in the Netzach Yehuda Battalion combat infantry unit before receiving his B.A. degree from Bar Ilan University in Social Sciences. He holds certificates in both the Israel Advocacy and Public Diplomacy fields.
An idealist — and extremely passionate about Eretz Yisrael, Judaism, and Har haBayit (the Temple Mount) — Michael uses his skills to help ‘Make Israel Great Again!’ He is a Temple Mount Guide with the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation and an activist in the Students for the Temple Mount movement. He co-manages the social media Facebook page for Boomerang – Fighting for Israel, a well-known pro-Israel advocacy group. Click here to read more of this writer's work in The Jerusalem Herald.