While it might seem a bit early to be talking about Chanukah, our Festival of Lights begins in a month – on Sunday evening, December 6! On the Jewish calendar, a day begins when the sun sets. As each of the eight days of Chanukah begins, we gather together with family and friends and light the Chanukah Menorah, also known as a Chanukiyah. The Chanukah Menorah and the light it gives off is a reminder of the Menorah, the elaborate, seven-branched candelabra that stood in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. More than 2,000 years ago, in the year 164 BCE (Before the Common Era, which begins with the year 0), a small group of Jewish heroes known as the Maccabees stood up to the Seleucid Empire that had taken over the land of Israel. Antiochus IV, one of the Seleucid rulers, made it illegal for the Jews to practice their religion. Under his reign, the ancient Jewish Temple that stood in Jerusalem and served as the heart and soul of ancient Judaism, was taken over by the Seleucid Empire. The Temple, the holiest place for the Jewish people, was desecrated. The Jewish people were told that they had two choices: they could convert to the religion of the Seleucid Empire or be killed. The Maccabees, a small group of Jews deeply committed to their faith, revolted against Antiochus and his tremendous military. Amazingly, the Maccabees were victorious. On the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev in the year 165 BCE, the Maccabees regained control of the Temple and began the process of cleaning it up and rededicating it as a sacred place for the Jewish people. As part of this rededication, the Maccabees had to rekindle the Menorah that stood in the Temple. Jewish practice dictated that the Menorah needed to be lit each night, but the Maccabees only found a small flask of oil – enough to light the Menorah for just one night. Miraculously, however, this small amount of oil lasted for eight full days, enough time to create new oil and keep the Menorah burning on a regular basis. This miracle, along with the strength and courage of the Maccabees, is what we celebrate during Chanukah.
While Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday, it is one of the most popular holidays among the Jewish people. Certainly, this has a lot to do with the fact that Chanukah usually falls during the Christmas season. The practice of giving gifts is a relatively new Chanukah practice that took hold in the mid-20th century in America. It is clearly a practice that we took from Christianity and incorporated into our own tradition. This type of borrowing is not unusual in the religious world. The very practice of giving gifts on Christmas was a custom that Christianity borrowed from the Norse religion and Germanic paganism. Lately many Christians have begun to incorporate a Passover seder into their religious practice. The African-American holiday of Kwanza, while not a religious holiday, was introduced in 1966 and adopts African traditions and Judeo-Christian holiday traditions. Some scholars argue that Buddhism and Christianity have influenced each other. It is evident that throughout history, religious and cultural communities have learned from each other, adopting traditions into their own practice that do not threaten their own fundamental beliefs. On the contrary, the traditions that are borrowed from other faiths and cultures bring new meaning to these fundamental beliefs and, thus, reinforce them.
Last year, I introduced the Kislev Calendar – a special Chanukah countdown calendar based on the Christian Advent Calendar. The Kislev Calendar is back! It is designed to expand the joy and excitement of Chanukah and give those of us who celebrate a better understanding of the history and meaning of the holiday. The Kislev Calendar begins on the first of Kislev, the Jewish month in which Chanukah falls, and counts down the twenty-four days that lead to the Festival of Lights, offering some wisdom and/or a little surprise each day. In addition, on each of the eight nights of Chanukah, the Kislev Calendar has a special gift for you and those with whom you celebrate the holiday. This year, Kislev begins next week on the evening of Thursday, November 12. To use The Kislev Calendar, please visit www.chanukahiscoming.com, click on the appropriate day and enjoy! The calendar will be live online beginning November 12. It is free and accessible to anyone who wants to count down the days to Chanukah!