Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What is Chanukah?

Chanukah starts tonight (December 20th) at sunset.

The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) records an unusual conversation.

Our sages are discussing the particulars of the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles.  When to light, where to light, who should see the lighting, etc.

Then, almost as an afterthought, someone poses the question:

What IS Chanukah?

No one in the Talmud ever asks "What is Passover?", or "What is Rosh Hashannah?"  Those, and a few other holidays, are commanded explicitly in the Torah.

You might say: well, obviously Chanukah can't be in the Five Books of Moses - the war and the miracle happened much later!

That's true.  However, we have another post-Torah holiday in Judaism, called Purim.  Yet, the Talmud never has to ask "What is Purim?"

The Talmud assumes that anyone reading its hallowed pages, already knows the Hebrew Scriptures thoroughly.  One of the books in the Hebrew Scriptures (the collection of Scriptures that Christians refer to as the Old Testament) is the book of Esther.  So even though Purim is not mentioned in the Five Books of Moses, it IS mentioned at the end of the book of Esther.

Chanukah is the only festive holiday we have that is not mentioned within the Hebrew Scriptures.

There is a book called the Book of Maccabees, with full details of the Assyrian-Greeks trying to take over Israel, and the small band of zealots who wouldn't give in to assimilation and foreign rule.

However, this book is not part of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Therefore, it lacks the authority to inform Jewish law and practice.

Which returns us to the original question.

"What is Chanukah? The rabbis taught:  On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev Chanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which mourning and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Hasmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to light the menorah of the Temple) and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and gratitude were to be recited." 
  -Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat21b

Now that we know what Chanukah is, let's look at how we commemorate the miracle.  Specifically, what do we light?

Many of our readers are used to seeing a Chanukah menorah look something like this:

These colored candles, available at most American supermarkets, have come to symbolize Chanukah for many people.  It's perfectly fine to light your menorah this way, but you should be aware of a few issues.

- The menorah flame should last at least 30 minutes.  Sometimes the colorful candles go out sooner.  

- On Friday, when we have to light before shabbat starts, and we want our menorah flame to continue to burn 30 minutes past nightfall, your average supermarket Chanukah candles just won't cut it.

- The miracle itself happened with oil!  

Because of these concerns, some of us actually light with glass cups filled with olive oil, and special wicks designed for this purpose.

To be fair to the candle users, I have heard one argument in favor of using candles over olive oil cups.  That is, the quality of the flame from a candle is better.  Some people think it looks nicer.

Since the whole point of lighting the Chanukah menorah is to publicize the miracle, attractiveness is a factor in the decision of how to light.

What do you do?  Candles, oil, something else?  

Also, what's your favorite Chanukah food?  

Leave us a comment below!