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What is Chanukah?
By Menachem Mendelsohn
The sages of the
Talmud asked, “What is Chanukah?” and immediately they answered their own
“When the Greeks
entered the Holy Temple they defiled all of the oils that they found there. But
when the House of the Hasmoneans grew strong and defeated them, they found one
vial of pure undefiled oil that had the seal of the high priest. There was just
enough oil in it for only one day, but it burnt for eight days. The following
year, the eight days of Chanukah were fixed as days of rejoicing and
thanksgiving together with the lighting of the candles.”
When the sages asked
“what is Chanukah”, we must understand exactly what it was that they were asking? They knew well the
history of the events and of the long and difficult war. What they wanted us to
know the real meaning of Chanukah – the deep inner meaning of what
happened. Many believed (and still believe) that Chanukah was a celebration of
the war against the Greeks, a victory of the small against the mighty, the down
trodden against the oppressor. But the sages wanted to tell us that that was not
the inner meaning of Chanukah. The war victory was important, but that was not
what they wanted to emphasize. Although a war was fought against a mighty and
vicious enemy, and many good Jews lost their lives, and the victory was
something beyond that of a natural victory, still, the emphasis of the sages was
on the candles.
Candles are the light
for the world. In ancient time it was the electric light bulb of today.
Similarly, we Jews are the light for the world. A good light must be pure; a
impure oil gives a poor light. To use the defiled oil would not have fit the
occasion and a true miracle was made that we found that vial of pure oil, and
even more so, it burnt not the single night that it was intended to burn, but
for eight times the normal length! This was to signal to all, that indeed, a
true miracle, one that could not be denied, was occurring.
The light had to be
pure and holy just like the light that Israel gives over to the nations must be
pure and undefiled. Judaism is different from the rest of the world’s beliefs
and ‘isms. It is Judaism that illuminates the world as to moral and ethical
When so many people
today are trying to change Judaism that it should ‘reflect’ the modern mores of
the time, they are missing the point. Judaism has no need to change. The fact
that the way of living in secular society is constantly changing, why should
Judaism have to change to reflect this change? This was the mistake of the
Hellenists, they were the Jews who wished to live with ‘modern’ Greek values.
Greece was the super-power of that time and many Jews were willing to exchange
their Jewish values for the ‘modern’ Greek values.
Judaism is pure to
itself; it does not seek converts. Yet it attracts only those who are willing to
accept truth and are repulsed by evil and lies. We Jews have lived in Christian
and Moslem lands; we have seen the evils that their religions have tried to
perpetrate upon us. Only with thanks to G-d were we able to live past their evil
and wicked leaders and officials.
In ancient Israel,
during the time of the Greeks, the Greek culture found many adherents in the
local Jewish population. They boasted how great it was to abandon the faith of
their fathers and to become a Hellenist. Yet their hour of grandeur was short in
the scale of history and in the end they were killed by the Hasmoneans.
Certainly we do not advocate such a path today, but still we loath seeing Jews
taking on the life-style of the current decadent society in which they live.
Even worse is when they believe that Judaism must change to reflect the
perverted values of these very societies.
Judaism has no need
to change. Judaism is the light not only for the Jews, but also for the nations
of the world. Just because some one feels that the ‘modern world’ is so ‘in’,
therefore he feels that Judaism should change to reflect the modern valueless
society. He is wrong. The eternal values of Judaism need not to change - just
the opposite, to change Judaism would be a disaster for not only the Jews but
for the rest of the world.
The message of
Chanukah is clear. The great nations and societies of the world come and go,
their philosophies and values come with them, rise to great heights and then die
with them. Only Judaism is eternal and possesses the eternal truth – like the
little pure light of the Chanukah menorah. A little pure light can dispel much
of the darkness that abounds in the world, but it must be pure light, not
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For more on Chanukah, see our Archives
from the December 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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