Jews around the world are celebrating Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of lights. But many Jews sometimes ask, why does this holiday matter? For many Israelis, it is merely a minor holiday where everyone lights a candle and continues with their routine life. For many American Jews, it is a festive holiday to celebrate but only because it allows the Jewish people to be included in the American holiday season that starts at Thanksgiving and concludes with New Year’s Day. However, the meaning of Hanukkah dictates that everyone should be making a big deal out of the holiday and not only because it falls close to Christmas.
Hanukkah is an eight day Jewish holiday that commemorates the failed attempt by the Seleucid Empire under Antiochus IV to compel the Jews to give up their religion and their heritage in favor of adopting Greek culture. Although the holiday is not considered a major one in Israel, the lessons of this holiday still resonate today and are of particular relevance to our generation, when over 60% of the Jewish American population intermarries and many Israelis value the Jewish state becoming a nation like all other nations rather than as a unique and special country in a covenant with G-d. While most Jews know that Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates the bravery of the few against the many and the victory of the freedom fighters against their oppressors, many are not aware that the holiday has a strong anti-assimilationist message that resonates even today.
Many might wonder, what is the difference between Hanukkah and Purim? In both stories, the Jews faced persecution and prevailed against their oppressors. Yet, there is a reason that the Jewish sages decreed that Hanukkah and Purim should be celebrated separately. While Haman of Persia sought to slaughter all of the Jews due to their opposition to the Jewish nation existing as a people and ethnic group, during Hanukkah, we recall that Antiochus IV did not oppose the existence of the Jewish people physically but was opposed to them practicing their religion and culture. He sought for them to adopt Greek customs and culture; he sought for them to assimilate into the Hellenistic culture. Those Jews who became Greek were accepted and treated well by him; those who refused were slaughtered.
In the framework of the Seleucid Greek persecutions, Antiochus IV had outlawed Torah study, kosher food, circumcisions for babies, and the observance of Shabbat and other Jewish festivals. He placed Greek idols in Jewish places of worship and compelled the Jews to sacrifice pigs as well as other unclean animals to Greek gods inside of their holy places. According to the Scholion commentary to Megillat Tammit, the Seleucid Greeks also used to routinely rape Jewish brides before their weddings. The authors of the commentary claimed that many Jews, in order to avoid this horror, abstained from public marriages and instead married women in secret, although it was not always possible to do this.
Why did the Seleucids target Temple worship, Jewish weddings, kosher food, Torah study, circumcision, Shabbat and Jewish holidays? Because without these things, you have no Jewish cultural life. These things are the essence of what makes us different from the other nations. If you take away these things, the Jews are just a nation like any other without anything making them especially different from the nations surrounding us, whether they be Greek, American, French, Arab, Turkish, Persian, etc. Our laws, culture, history and tradition is the root of who we are. Without our roots, we blend in and mix with the other nations. Assimilationist Jews don’t pose a threat to gentile rulers with an assimilationist policy so long as they give up on their heritage and adopt the culture of their adopted nation.
For this reason, the only Jews of the Hanukkah story that were given a death penalty were those who refused to follow the rulings of Antiochus IV. The Book of Maccabees recalls that the Greeks used to go from village to village hunting down Jews that continued to practice their religion and culture in secret. In one particularly brutal incident, two women were caught secretly circumcising their sons. After being dragged through the streets of Jerusalem with their babies hanging on their breasts, the women and their babies were thrown down a ravine at the foot of a wall, where their bones scattered about.
However, if these women accepted Greek culture, they and their babies would have remained alive and they would not have been brutally murdered. Indeed, before Elazar was murdered, the Greeks had offered him a life or riches, luxury, and honor if only he would eat pig meat. He refused and chose death. But not all Jews were as noble as Elazar, as the Book of Maccabees notes Jewish collaborators that helped their Greek oppressors implement their horrendous assimilation program.
In contrast, in the Purim story, the entire Jewish nation was given a death penalty and there was nothing one could do to get out of it had Esther’s scheme not played out the way that it did. Therefore, the two holidays are separate and unique, commemorating two types of persecution experienced by the Jewish people throughout history, one in which the Jews were murdered for their faith and could get out of it by changing their religion and the other one where the Jews were slaughtered just because they existed as a people like during the Holocaust.
Both types of oppression are worth commemorating today because if we don’t know our history, how can we predict our future? Both the Hanukkah and Purim stories symbolize the experience of the Jewish people. The Maccabees represent the Jewish people that refused to transgress the Torah despite the intense persecutions they were exposed to and after a long struggle fighting against the Greeks, they succeeded to liberate the Jewish homeland and to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem for Jewish worship.
But when the Jewish people arrived in the Temple in Jerusalem, they saw with despair that the Greeks had deliberately defiled and thus made impure all of the oil. The Jewish sages teach that the Greeks did not need the oil and had done this deliberately just in order to prevent the Jews from worshiping G-d. After a great struggle, the Jewish people only found one jar of oil that had not been contaminated. Miraculously, the oil that was found was enough to last for eight days and nights, after which new oil was made.
The light of the Hanukkah menorah symbolizes the Jewish soul throughout the generations. Many Jewish souls have been adversely affected by foreign influence due to the 2,000 year long Jewish Diaspora. During this period of time, many Jews were massacred, raped, forced to change their religion and experienced various levels of persecution, thus prompting many Jews to abandon the culture and heritage of their forefathers. Others gave up on elements of their heritage merely due to social pressure and assimilationist policies by various governments. This has brought many Jews to a situation today where they don’t know what the Shema Israel is or what is Shabbat or the true meaning behind Hanukkah? But, there will always be a minority like the Maccabees who will fight to the death in order to preserve their heritage. However, even for the many Jews who abandon elements of their heritage if not all of it due to foreign influence, they also are not without hope.
As it is written in The Days of Hanukah in Jewish Law and the Hagadah, “But still, the Lord will not abandon his people and will not leave his land. Even in a situation when all of the oils turn to be impure, which means the ideas got confused, and the pure souls of the Israeli people turned to be unclean, even then, it is possible to find a pure bottle of oil which is the Jewish point which exists in the heart of every Jew deep inside. That point never turns off and never turns impure forever. But just if we would have the intelligence to turn it on and to light it, then she will rise up and will be turned on and will be like an eternal candle and a holy flame.”
This Op-Ed/Analysis is the author’s personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of JerusalemOnline.com