Outside of Israel, especially in Christian societies of the West, Hanukkah is perceived as the most important Jewish holiday. In fact, many Jews in Diaspora also relate to Hanukkah as a major Jewish holiday. As Christian societies prepare for their “Holiday Season” several weeks in advance of their most important holiday, Hanukkah almost becomes a “Jewish Christmas”. For example, throughout the Diaspora, Hanukkah menorahs often appear next to Christmas trees.
Ironically, Israel is the one place in the world where Hanukkah stands on it own and is therefore in many ways more “low key” than in the Diaspora. For example, while exchanging “Hanukkah gifts” is common among Jews in the Diaspora, it’s not the accepted practice among Israelis. Although schools are on vacation for most of the 8-day festival, it is not nearly as major an observance as the fall holidays or Passover in the spring. Many Jewish holidays can be summarized by the following cliche: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” Here in Israel, high-calorie Jelly-filled donuts known as “sufgoniyot” are sold throughout the country as the traditional Hanukkah food starting a few weeks before the holiday. But in most Jewish communities of the Diaspora, potato pancakes knows as “latkes” is the choice Hanukkah delicacy.
The reason for eating oily foods this time of year relates to the “miracle of oil”. As every Jewish child learns, the Syrian Greeks defiled our Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When the Maccabees managed to liberate the Temple, they found only enough pure olive oil to light the Menorah to last for one day. Nonetheless, a miracle occurred and it lasted for eight days. This explains why Hanukkah is celebrated for eights days, and why we light candles in increasing order each night of the festival.
Although this spiritual description of Hanukkah has been the focus of Jews over the past 2,000 years, the historical significance of this holiday has almost been completely forgotten. The Book of Maccabees is the only source that tells the true Hanukkah story. Since it has only survived in the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, known as the Septuagint, the Book of Maccabees was largely unknown to the Jewish world until recently. Interestingly enough, the Book of Maccabees doesn’t make any mention of the miracle of the oil, nor does the famous Jewish historian Josephus Flavius who lived a couple hundred years later. Instead, the true Hanukkah story is that of a small group of Jews who decided to take history into their hands instead of waiting around for God to perform a miracle. Outnumbered, they took the courageous decision to launch a rebellion against the oppressive anti-Jewish decrees of Antiochus the 4th. As a result of the rebellion, not only was the Temple recaptured, but an autonomous Jewish State in the Land of Israel was reestablished for the first time in some 400 years. Known as the Hasmonean State, it lasted for some 100 years until the invasion of the Romans in 63 B.C.E.
Why do rabbinic sources down play such a heroic story? Perhaps the answer relates to the pains of exile in which the Jewish people were so often persecuted and scattered to the furthest parts of the world. The Jewish rebellion against the Romans in 66 C.E led to the destruction of Jerusalem four years later. The Bar-Kochba revolt against the Romans 60 years later was also a failure and led to the deaths and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Given the poor track record of Jewish rebellions, the predominant attitude became one of accepting the exile as a necessary evil.
When David Ben Gurion announced the creation of the State of Israel just under 70 years ago, this was the first time since the Hasmoneans more than 2,000 years ago that the Jewish people merited our own state. In many ways, the Zionist pioneers were the modern Macabees who took history into their own hands. Instead of only praying to return to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem as traditional Jews had done for two millennia, they decided to make it happen. They succeeded. Happy Hanukkah!