1. Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas.
The parallels are striking. Both happen near the end of the secular year. Both center around lights. And both involve gift giving.
But, despite their outward similarities, the two are vastly different in religious meaning. Christmas is a central Christian holiday, marking the birth of Jesus. Hanukkah, which is not found in the Hebrew Bible, celebrates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple by a group of Jewish fighters and priests known as the Maccabees. Hanukkah has gained outsized spiritual attention in America because of its proximity to Christmas, but historically it has been a relatively minor Jewish holiday.
2. There is no one right away to spell Hanukkah.
The first letter of the Hebrew word is a chet, which has no English equivalent. Many traditional Jews prefer “Ch,” even though it is a different sound than the “ch” in a word like “chapter.” Some prefer the “H,” but the “H” lacks the guttural sound of the Hebrew. Both are used interchangeably.
3. The Hanukkah candelabra is known as a hanukkiyah, not a menorah. (Get a cheat sheet for all the Jewish holidays here.)
The menorah is the seven-wicked candelabra that stood in the Jerusalem Temple. It became a symbol of Judaism and is carved into one of the gates of Rome as a symbol of the Roman conquest of Judea in 70 C.E. The hanukkiyah, in contrast, has nine wicks. One wick, typically in the center, is set apart from the others and known as the shamash, or “head” candle. It is used to light the other eight candles.
4. We light the candles from left to right, but add candles each evening from right to left.
In other words, we start by lighting the right-most candle on the first evening of Hanukkah. Then we add another candle to its left. We light that new candle first, and then light the right-most candle. This process continues through eight nights.
5. Some families replace eight nights of gift giving with a mix of learning, social action, and giving.
At my synagogue, we encourage families to take at least one night to volunteer as a family or gather toys and clothing to donate.
6. The custom of playing with a dreidel (spinning top) is based on a German gambling game.
A spinning top with various letters printed on its side was played in both Germany and England from about the sixteenth century onward. European Jews adopted the game and replaced the German and English letters with Hebrew ones. Now it is used to amuse children throughout the holiday.
7. A dreidel made in Israel is different than a dreidel made outside of Israel.
Outside of Israel, the letters on the dreidel are an acronym for “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel the letters stand for “A great miracle happened here.”
8. The traditional Hanukkah foods are potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly donuts.
Both foods involve frying and oil. Oil symbolizes the miracle of Hanukkah. According to Jewish tradition, the Maccabees found a tin of oil in the Temple after they recaptured it. It was only supposed to provide enough light for one night. It miraculously lasted for eight.
9. There are two main Hanukkah stories.
The origins of Hanukkah lie the battle between the Jewish zealots known as Maccabees and the Seleucid King Antiochus. The Maccabees won, and the holiday began as a way to celebrate their victory. This story is told in the Apocryphal Book of Maccabees.
When Jews had lost their independence and were ruled by the Roman Empire 500 years later, Jewish leaders downplayed the military part of the story and focused on the religious miracle of a tin of oil lasting for eight days. The emphasis on the spiritual rather than the military aspects of the holiday made it less susceptible to Roman suppression.
10. Many American Jews see Hanukkah as a celebration of our religious freedom.
The Maccabees began their revolt because Antiochus forced the Jews under his control to adapt Hellenistic practices. He placed a sculpture of the Greek God Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple.
Today we take the opportunity to celebrate our right to practice Judaism freely in America — and remind ourselves of the imperative to ensure this freedom for people of all faiths around the world.
December means family time. We celebrate holidays. We take a little time off. But many of us greet this with a feeling of worry.
Our country feels more divided. The ties that bind us feel more frayed. I’ve read some accounts of siblings cutting themselves off from one another because of the way they voted in this year’s election.
Is there a way out of this conflict? Is there a path to recovering what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature?”
Make This Assumption
Yes. But it starts with an important assumption. We need to assume that those who disagree with us have good motives. We can question their ideas. We can question their decisions. But we can’t assume bad motives. Especially during the holidays.
Take a political example: Let’s see we support Obama Care and our cousin does not. Do we assume he doesn’t support it because he doesn’t care about people who get sick and die because they can’t get health care?
Or do we assume he cares about people getting health care, but he does not think Obama Care is the right way? If we assume the former, we will never find a way to talk. If we assume the other, then at least we can try.
Watch Your Words
We also need to watch our words. As a parent of two young children, I see the way they respond when frustrated with one another. They call each other names and even say things like “I hate you.”
Now, of course, my wife and I stop this, and soon enough they are playing together again. But their behavior shows us how easily disagreement can descend into name-calling.
When we start calling each other names, we are talking past one another, making it harder to ever find peace.
There’s a reason society develops manners. They help us get along. We need them during the holidays. And we need more in political and civic life today.
Say “Thank You”
We also need to more gratitude. Even as so many in America struggle, we also live in an extraordinary time and place.
We enjoy a better quality of life—cell phones, dishwashers, grocery stores filled to the brim—than any other time in human history. Sometimes in the midst of our anger and frustration, we need to step back and say thank you.
That’s the logic behind the first prayer Jews say every morning. It begins with the words Modeh Ani L’fanecha, meaning “I am thankful to be alive today.”
We say that prayer every morning even if we feel angry. We say it even if we are in the midst of tragedy. We say it even if we don’t feel it at the time.
We begin the day with gratitude because life itself is a gift. That is the secret to finding the “better angels of our nature.”
To get more inspiration for finding happiness and making better choices, get Rabbi Moffic’s free gift here.
Where do you find hope in our divided society?
The newspaper is rarely is a good source to find wisdom. We find opinions. We find facts. But real insight on how to live well is are. So we turn to other sources like books and essays and blogs.
But what if I told you one section of the newspaper does contain wisdom? And that section is the one you are the least likely to anticipate? That would be the comics.
The best comic strips do not just make us laugh. They trigger aha moments. They make us think. They stick with us, and we want to tell our family and friends about them.
The Wisest Comic Strip
My all-time favorite comic strip is Dilbert. I love it even though I do not work in the traditional office setting Dilbert so often mocks. But I love the insight of the comic’s author, Scott Adams.
Adams shares more his insights in a phenomenal book, How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. Adams’ ability to capture deep ideas in pithy sentences drives the entire book.
The World Needs to Make Sense
Though he is not a person of faith, one of his key observations reveals a lot about what makes our faith traditions so powerful. The world, as he points out, is too complex for any one person to understand.
Even Albert Einstein, perhaps the smartest person to have lived, admitted he knew only a fraction of what there is to know about the world.
Therefore, in order to survive and not feel totally overwhelmed, we develop a perspective, a point of view. That perspective helps make sense of what happens to us.
Someone with a secular perspective sees the birth of a child as purely a medical phenomena. A person of faith sees it as a miracle from God.
Do you Want a Longer Life?
Each perspective has its place. We would not want a doctor delivering a baby to ignore the science and think of it only as a miracle. But when it comes to living a meaningful life, the faith perspective works very well. It leads us to longer, healthier and more compassionate lives.
Indeed, recent studies show that people of faith live, on average, seven years longer than others, have more friends, and a healthier lifestyle.
We cannot fully understand why faith works so well. I say it is because God created us this way, and when we follow God’s teaching, we are optimizing ourselves as human beings.
But others might offer a more pragmatic and sociological prospecting, suggesting faith works because it binds us to others and creates communities that look out for one another. We do not need to know the precise reason faith works in order to see that it does.
All we need to realize is that it works. So if you want a better life, you don’t need more things. You need more faith.
Jewish tradition often leaves me perplexed. A few years ago, the first night of Chanukah coincided with Thanksgiving. This year Chanukah begins on Christmas Eve. How is that possible?
The Jewish calendar revolves around the lunar cycle. The lunar cycle lasts about 28 days. That is a month in the Jewish calendar. The typical lunar year is 355 days.
To keep the calendar more aligned with the Western secular calendar, the Jewish sages add an extra month every few years. Thus, the secular date of Chanukah changes every year, though it rarely is earlier or later than December.
So is there anything religiously significant about Chanukah and Christmas coinciding this year?
Not really. Some interfaith families will observe both in various ways. But here’s what we can all remember.
We need light in this darkest time of the year. For most of us, December is the darkest month of the year. The days are short and the nights are long.
The lights of Chanukah and Christmas come as a much needed relief and source of celebration. Here’s why we need them.
A Story About Light
A classic Jewish joke tells of a man looking down at the sidewalk. He keeps walking back and forth and looking down.
A policeman eventually comes up to him and asks what he is doing. He says “I’m looking for my keys. I lost them.”
The policeman then asks, “Where did you drop them?” The man points toward the other side of the street and says “Somewhere over there.”
The incredulous policeman says, “Then why are you looking over here?”
The man replies, “Because over here, the light is better.”
Light My Way
This joke often used by scientists to explain biases in research. The light represents our biases, and we tend to look for ways to confirm them.
But it also reveals a spiritual truth. We seek light in times of darkness. We need light to guide and comfort us.
My hope and prayer is that we can be lights for one another. We can fill our spirits with the light from above, and bring it down to one another in