do you believe in miracles?

Mai chanukah? So the rabbis of the Talmud begin their discussion of this holiday: “What is Chanukah?” The fact that they start with a question should be a big red flag that this will be an extended discussion, as scholars of the Talmud are apt to give lots of answers even when no question is posed.

It’s a good question, and the rabbis were fairly prescient on this point, as far as 21st century American society goes. Chanukah is the only holiday that the non-Jewish world is consistently knowledgeable of the timing of, even if it’s only because Chanukah is considered as the “Jewish Christmas.” To be fair, though, lots of Jews think of it that way, too. A little more on that below.

eighth night of chanukah; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Chanukah technically commemorates the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE after the Maccabean victory over the Seleucids in Syria, who had outlawed Jewish religious observance. (The name of the holiday is derived from the Hebrew verb for “rededicate.”) After the battle, the Maccabees were able to light the menorah in the Temple for eight nights even though they found in the temple only enough consecrated oil for one night. Others have written better than I about the various interpretations of this rather strange holiday, but what I’ve been thinking about this year is the “miracle” of the oil.

In the second prayer after candle lighting each night, we say, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.” I hadn’t thought about what that prayer really meant until this year, when the Maccabeats, the Yeshiva University a cappella sensation, released its annual Chanukah video. A cover of Matisyahu, the catchy song asks in its chorus, “Do you believe in miracles?”

Well, no. I don’t. At least not literally. I’m more of subscriber to Heschel’s dictum: “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.”

What, then, do I make of the story of the small cruse of oil that lasted beyond what it should have? I don’t have the answer I want . . . yet. I hope that when I’m in rabbinical school I’ll be able to access textual and historical criticism of the sources for the holiday. At the very least, I can say now that the holiday’s proximity to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, perhaps accounts for the emphasis on light.

zechariah 4:6; print from my grandmother

For now, I really like what Michael Strassfeld says in The Jewish Holidays:

[T]he meaning of Hanukkah is that the miracle of that first day was the deep faith that it took to light the menorah, knowing their was not enough oil for eight days [the time that it would have taken to consecrate more oil]. The same faith led the Maccabees to revolt against impossible odds . . . They believed they would prevail “not by strength, nor by power, but through My spirit — says the Lord.” This faith allowed them to light the menorah, and it is this faith that made it burn for eight days.

The “miracle” becomes the commitment of the Maccabean army to principle — and its willingness to fight with only the slimmest hope of success. I can relate to that layer of meaning.

Despite my annoyance at the disproportionate importance given to Chanukah by the non-Jewish world, I do tend to associate Chanukah and Christmas together in my mind. There’s the obvious: Chanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev, as Christmas begins on the 25th of December. And Christmas commemorates its own miracle, the virgin birth of the son of G-d. (I imagine there are Christians who believe that, too, might not be literal.) More personally, my grandfather died at the end of 2004. His birthday was on Christmas (he would have been 93 this year), and he died on the first day of Chanukah (which that year was December 7, Pearl Harbor Day). I now look forward to the holidays at the end of the year to remember him on both his yahrzeit and his birthday. As the rabbis finally answer, Zot chanukah (this is Chanukah).

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