Shabbat Hanukkah by Laya Crust
This painting is from my newly published book “ILLUMINATIONS, An Exploration of Haftarah through Art and History.” The book was released last month- in November 2022. This painting is based on an exquisite manuscript illumination painted in northern France, around 1278. It shows the High Priest pouring consecrated olive oil into the Temple Menorah.
This year the 25th of Kislev (the first night of Hanukkah) fell on December 18. Read on for some interesting Hanukkah information.
The story of Hanukkah began in 168 BCE when the Syrian-Greeks, under Antiochus Epiphanes, desecrated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews of Modi’in rebelled. Under the leadership of Matityahu the High Priest and his five sons, a group of Jewish rebels, called the Maccabees, hid in the mountains and fought the Greeks. The Maccabees retook the Temple in Jerusalem, purified it and made new holy objects such as the menorah, a new altar, and other holy vessels. Matityahu proclaimed the 25th of Kislev (the third anniversary of Antiochus’s anti-Jewish proclamations) as the first day of Hanukkah.
The word Hanukkah means “Dedication,” and this is the holiday of the rededication of the Temple. Josephus actually called the holiday “Urim” (which means”Lights”) so that may be why it is also called “The Holiday of Lights.”
Why do we light 8 candles- plus an extra, the “shamash”? There have been various opinions on how many candles to light. The early writings didn’t even mention the kindling of lights on Hanukkah. It is first mentioned around 200 CE in a “baraita” (oral opinion from the Mishnaic period). One opinion was that only one flame should be lit each night. Another opinion was that one light for each person should be lit each night. The more zealous, it said, could light an additional candle for each of the eight days.
We base our tradition on the “Beit Hillel” school of thought. Whereas “Beit Shammai” suggested starting Hanukkah with 8 candles and reducing that by one each night, Hillel preferred the idea of adding a candle each night.
Why the shamash? We aren’t supposed to use our Hanukkah candles and their flames for practical purposes. We are only to gaze at their light and enjoy them. So, we use a “worker candle” (shamash) to light the others. The “worker” candle is set at a different height so it won’t be confused with the actual Hanukkah lights.
The popular reason given for the 8-day length of Hanukkah is the story of the miracle of the oil. This is a story found in another “baraita.” According to this story, the Maccabbees went into the Temple and found only one cruse of purified oil acceptable for use in the menorah. The cruse was lit and miraculously burned for 8 days until more pure oil could be obtained. That miraculous little cruse of oil inspired the wonderful fried Hanukkah- potato latkes, sufganiot (jelly donuts) and bimuelos or loukoumades which are Sepharadi delicacies- deep fried puffs in honey.
The halachah tells us to light our hanukkiot in the street. Most of us in North America light our candles in a window facing the street. In Israel there are special glass boxes – almost like a closed aquarium – so people can light their candles in the street and they won’t be extinguished by the wind.
“Dreidel” is the traditional Hanukkah game. A dreidel is a four-sided “top.” Dreidel is its Yiddish name, and Sivivon is its Hebrew name. There are different stories about the history of the game. A popular story is that the game dates back to the time of the Maccabees. While they were hiding from the Greeks in caves the children would play with the dreidels to alleviate their boredom. Another theory was that since the study of Torah was forbidden, the Jews would take out their dreidels if they heard the soldiers coming to hide the fact they were learning Torah.
Another idea is that Hanukkah was a holiday of joy. Parents relaxed the rules and let their children play dreidel although it had a gambling component. But where is the dreidel itself from? A game called “teetotum” was played in England and Ireland in the early 1500’s. The “teetotum” had letters or numbers on the sides representing what was being gambled. Some of the teetotums had letters written on them with H for take half, T for take all, P for put in and N for nothing. It sounds quite familiar. For more thoughts on the symbolism and possible history of the dreidel you can go to http://ohr.edu/1309
We haven’t explored the story of Judith, but that will be for another time. Whichever way you decide to celebrate, and whatever history story you decide to tell, enjoy your Hanukkah and don’t eat too many bimuelos!
Have a wonderful Hanukkah and a joyful Shabbat Shalom, Laya
About the Book!!
I’m excited to introduce you to the newest member of my family. ILLUMINATIONS, An Exploration of Haftarah through Art and History is a book of all the haftarah pictures you have seen in my blog. It was published in October and released on November 24, 2022. It boasts 82 full-colour pictures and a rich commentary that accompanies each painting. For more information or to order a book go to https://www.haftarah-illuminations.com/ or to haftarah-illuminations.com