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Is Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas?

On the surface, it may appear so. Both share family gatherings, gift exchanges and traditional foods. Both fall around the same time of year.

However, Hanukkah, which this year begins and ends at sundown (as all Jewish holidays do) on Dec. 22 and Dec. 30 is considered a rather minor festival as compared to other Jewish observances — or Christmas.

According to myjewishlearning.com, Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Rededication or the Festival of Light, celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by the Syrian Greeks in 164 B.C.E. (Before Common Era).

In 167 B.C.E., a small band of Jews in Judea led by Judah Maccabee rose up against the oppression and religious persecution of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Greatly outnumbered, Judah and his army managed to overthrow the Syrian Greeks. They captured the Holy Temple, which had been turned into a pagan shrine, cleansed and rededicated it. When they went to rekindle the Eternal Light, which is to be lit continuously, there was enough oil to last only one day. The oil lasted eight days until more oil could be obtained from afar, and thus the festival is celebrated for eight days by lighting a menorah, an eight-branched candelabra.

The miracles of Hanukkah are celebrated by lighting one candle each night. It is also customary to play games with dreidels or spinning tops, adorned with Hebrew letters that translate to “A Great Miracle Happened There.” In commemoration, Jews eat foods fried in oil including latkes, or potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts.

Hanukkah falls on a different secular date each year, because of the luni-solar Jewish calendar: months are based on lunar months, but years are based on solar years. In contrast, the Gregorian calendar, most widely used in the world, is a solar calendar whose dates coincide with the position of the sun relative to the stars.

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Rabbi Suzanne Griffel of Sinai Temple in Michigan City explains: “Though Hanukkah can move around in the secular calendar, it always begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev,” she noted.

Rabbi Griffel pointed out that Hanukkah is a fun holiday, and one thing it has in common with Christmas is its proximity to the winter solstice.

“It’s important to have a light focused holiday at the darkest time of the year, as we deal with the fact that winter, in its lack of daylight, is scary. It’s a human instinct to wonder if daylight will return,” said Rabbi Griffel. “Psychologically, we need a holiday that brings light.”

Rabbi Griffel said that holiday evokes the lesson of coming together as a light to banish the darkness or evil, as the Maccabees did in the story of Hanukkah.

Though Rabbi Robin Damsky of Temple Israel in Gary's Miller Beach area, agrees with the idea of light conquering darkness or evil, she dismisses any ties to the solstice, a Celtic tradition. Instead she sees Hanukkah as an observations of Festival of Sukkot (the harvest), which the Book of Maccabees notes was delayed by an impending “civil war” battle.

“Hanukkah was their late attempt to celebrate Sukkot, which is a holiday that is about our relationship with nature,” she said. “We pray for rain during Sukkot, as we need water to survive. This is especially poignant this year as we are concerned about our climate.

“A good way to celebrate Hanukkah this year includes getting involved in our local community and in our homes to save our environment, as we are faced with a serious need right now to keep our planet functional.”

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