Monday, December 22, 2008

Keeping the “Ch” in “Chanukkah”

Last night began the Jewish Festival of Lights, known as Chanukkah (Hanukkah), which commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, following the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BC. It is observed for eight nights, as a reminder of the miracle of one night's supply of oil for the lamps lasting for eight, until a fresh supply could be obtained. (Jordanes writes: "Kind of, sort of...")

Years ago, our director of communications was a devout Jewish woman, who invited all the staff to her house in the country for a holiday celebration. A highlight of the affair was her presentation with her grandchildren, as she told them of the story of Chanukkah. As the rest of us Gentiles watched, she would lead the children in the Hebrew chant for the occasion: "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us by his commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Chanukkah..." While others stood around watching in varying degrees of perplexity, I found myself singing with the children. After all, where do you idiots think Gregorian chant came from anyway?

A comedian named Adam Sandler first introduced this holiday classic on NBC's Saturday Night Live. The song gives a list of famous celebrities from various walks of life who are Jewish: "Put on your yarmulke, here comes Hanukkah / It's so much funukkah, to celebrate Hanukkah / Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights / Instead of one day of presents, we get eight crazy nights!"

There's more where that came from. They Might Be Giants appears in this video as a four-peice band, performing their Chanukkah song live for the first time ever. Shot during Juidth Owen & Harry Shearer's Holiday Sing-A-Long at The Canal Room in New York City on December 15, 2006. Of course, it should be noted here that Chanukkah is not a major Jewish feast in the strict sense. It only became popular with the demand for a Jewish occasion for gift-giving, especially to children, at the same time of year as Christmas. Nothing wrong with that, from what I can see.

Another SNL comedy veteran, Jon Lovitz, took the concept one step farther, with the introduction of "Hanukkah Harry" character. "On Moische! On Herschel! On Schlomo!"

Hey, after Sal and I spent yesterday afternoon with Christmas shopping, I finally got the decorations up, and also found a way to hang the big-@$$ wreath on the screen door. I've just gotta find a way to lighten up here.

"It's beginning to look a lot like..." whatever.

1 comment:

Jordanes said...

It is observed for eight nights, as a reminder of the miracle of one night's supply of oil for the lamps lasting for eight, until a fresh supply could be obtained.

Kind of, sort of. The legend of the miracle of the oil doesn’t appear until much later, and is not mentioned in either I or II Maccabees, the earliest historical sources to mention Hanukkah (they were written in the latter 100s B.C., within a few decades of the actual events). According to those sources, Hanukkah was instituted as an eight-day festival as something of a junior Sukkot. Due to the Gentile persecution, the Jews were not able to celebrate the eight-day Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. When Judas recaptured Jerusalem and cleansed and rededicated the Temple, it was already winter and the time for Sukkot was past, but the Jews missed the joyful celebration of Hanukkah so much that they decided to celebrate a winter Feast of Booths. The reason the exact date of Kislev 25 was chosen for the first day of Hanukkah is apparently because that happened to be the date that Antiochus Epiphanes had first defiled the Temple, and the Jews wanted to replace that dark memory with a new memory of joy. II Maccabees even calls Hanukkah “the Feast of Booths in the month of Kislev” to distinguish it from the original, “real” Feast of Booths, which falls in Tishri. II Maccabees indicates that another reason for the eight-day feast had to do with the rededication of the altar: in the Torah the dedication of the altar and tabernacle lasted eight days, and II Maccabees takes special care to recall the previous history of the altar, Temple, and priestly sacrificial worship.

All of that has been all but forgotten, though, and the legend of the miracle of the oil has pretty much supplanted what the oldest sources say. That’s not to say that the legend is false, of course. It may have happened . . . or it may have arisen as a symbolic echo of the miracle of God’s preservation of the Israelites against overwhelming odds. The Seleucid Empire was one of the major powers of its day, and yet a puny remnant of a puny tribe somehow managed to defeat it and reestablish Jewish independence. That’s a real miracle, and one that we know really happened.