Now that December is here, our names inscribed and sealed, our lulavs shaken, our Torahs rewound, we now suffer the oily descent into Chanukah. “But it’s just a minor holiday,” we repeat to no effect, spying the deluge of Chanukah-related knick-knackery flowing from the “let’s include other cultures” aisle at Michael’s. “It’s not even in the Torah,” but then neither is Christmas in the Christian Bible and that doesn’t seem to slow down the Yuletide any.
Jewish festivals are intentionally repetitious -- but to paraphrase poet Adam Sol, the same rituals mean different things on different iterations. Each cycle gives us new opportunity for insight into the enigmas, a new chance at a new meaning. So when we repeat the Chanukah ritual each of its eight nights, consider with each additional candle a new layer to the festival.
Consider with your first candle that in ancient days, you’d be lighting not a wax candle, but an oil candelabra. Oil was important in biblical times -- used for holy flames and anointing priests -- and the Torah lists it alongside water and wine as a holy substance. It should come as no surprise then that we celebrate the oil olive harvest (such as by eating fried foods), which happens to occur just before Chanukah.
On the second night, recall the story of the Hasmoneans, how Judah bravely lead his Maccabees in revolt to take back the Temple. Their rededication of the Temple, returning it to a holiness after it was made unclean through worshipping Greek gods there, gives us the name Chanukah -- literally, “rededication”.
Lighting the third candle, remember that the Maccabees weren’t fighting Greeks, but fellow Jews. The first to be conquered were Hellenized Jews, Jews which had taken up Greek practices, Greek names, Greek thinking. Alexander the Great had swept through the Holy Land, his legacy taking form in Antiochus. This was the impurity the Maccabees fought against, theirs was a battle of cultures.
The fourth candle brings us miracles. The Maccabees remained in charge of Jerusalem less than 150 years, their legacy ending at the hands of Herod the Great. What, then, were the Jews to do with Chanukah, the holiday which celebrated a now-conquered dynasty? Why, celebrate the miracle instead! What miracle? You don’t remember that during the rededication, one cruse of oil miraculously lasted eight whole days? Of course there was a miracle! It would be awfully inconvenient if our festival was celebrating a now-failed revolt, and not this miracle of the oil.
Our fifth candle shines its light on the Talmud, where the rabbis formalize the rituals of Chanukah. The sages debate when to light the menorah, what order to light the candles in, which side of the door to place it on, how high from the ground it should be, whose fault it is if it accidentally starts a fire, what type of oil is acceptable, and who should pay for the oil when you’re a guest at someone else’s house (the answer is, it depends on if you’re married). What’s missing is any other discussion of Chanukah: no story, no meaning, just lighting candles.
The sixth candle is for Zionism. As yearning for a Jewish homeland wakened, early Zionists saw as a powerful symbol Chanukah’s story of fierce Jewish warriors fighting for the Holy Land. From the Zionist legacy we have institutions such as the Maccabiah Games and Israel’s Maccabi beer.
With the seventh Chanukah candle, consider Christmas. Christmas has similarly morphed into a uniquely American version of its original holiday, and it has brought Chanukah (among others) along with it. It is undeniable that for most of us, Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas has permanently altered the holiday’s observance and importance.
With the last candle, savor the 2,000-plus years of history that brings you to that moment. Relish the irony that a festival stemming from a revolt against assimilation has itself been assimilated. Remind yourself that the oil in the latkes is the same oil your ancestors used to create holiness. When the dreidel reminds you of the phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” -- A Great Miracle Happened There -- maybe the miracle is less the mysteriously long-lasting oil. Maybe the real miracle is that we’re still celebrating Chanukah, over two millennia later.