Opinion

How Christmas is linked to Hanukkah

Photo courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons

(RNS) — Hanukkah, which begins Tuesday evening (Dec. 12) has been incorrectly called the “Jewish Christmas” because both holidays emphasize light and take place during the darkest days of winter.

While the two festivals are very different in message and observance, there are, however, some significant links between Hanukkah and Christmas. The New Testament records that Jesus, like other Jews of his time, celebrated the eight days of Hanukkah: “It was the feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” (John 10:22-23) The Hebrew word “Hanukkah” means “Dedication.”

If Charles Dickens had written about Hanukkah in a manner similar to his “A Christmas Carol,” the famous English author would have noted that special prayers are recited in Jewish homes each night of the holiday as young (and not so young) children light colorful candles in a candelabrum or menorah. Dickens would surely describe in loving detail the unmistakable aroma and taste of the two traditional holiday treats: potato pancakes fried in oil and loaded with calories and cholesterol along with small jelly doughnuts that rapidly raise a person’s blood sugar level. Gifts are exchanged among family members and friends and a series of well-known songs are sung that are especially beloved by adults — including me — because they evoke warm joyous childhood memories of Hanukkahs long past.

That’s how the holiday is celebrated today.

But the warm and fuzzy aspects of the festival frequently obscure the darker historical side of Hanukkah. The holiday commemorates the military struggle in the land of Israel between 168-165 B.C. when Judah Maccabee’s small number of Jewish guerrillas defeated the much larger and better-armed Greco-Syrian army of Emperor Antiochus IV, a brutal ruler who reigned over part of Alexander the Great’s former empire.

Antiochus was no champion of religious liberty and diversity. In his zeal for total control of his vast realm, he prohibited the study of Torah, ritual circumcision, kosher dietary laws, Sabbath observance and the practice of Judaism itself. An ancient historian detailed Antiochus’ cruelty:

“The Books of the Torah which the men of Antiochus found, they tore into pieces and burned. Wherever a book of the covenant was found in anyone’s possession, or if anyone respected the Torah, the decree of the king imposed the sentence of death upon him. Month after month, they dealt brutally with every Jew who was found in the cities…In accordance with the decree, they put to death the women who had circumcised their children, hanging the newborn babies around their necks; and they also put to death their families as well as those who had circumcised them.”

When Judah’s forces recaptured Jerusalem, they demolished the statues of Zeus and other idolatrous symbols Antiochus had placed inside the Holy Temple, and rededicated the Temple to the service of God. Judah’s victory of “the few over the many” has earned him his own statue at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he stands alongside other great military leaders.

Jewish tradition teaches that the small quantity of olive oil that Judah found was insufficient to fuel the Temple’s eternal light beyond one day, but somehow the precious oil lasted eight days; an event described as the “miracle” of Hanukkah.

Many historians agree that Hanukkah represents an early struggle for what we today call “religious liberty“ or “freedom of conscience.” The holiday is an annual reminder that every faith community has the right to maintain its diverse customs, ceremonies, and teachings, and no ruler, government, or regime has the right to dictate what people can and cannot believe.

Hanukkah’s message remains as relevant as it was more than 2,100 years ago. Today there are forced religious conversions involving kidnapped young children, beheadings based upon one’s religious identity and numerous bloody “religious wars” raging in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and other parts of the world.

Finally, without the Maccabees’ victory and the preservation of Jewish religious life in ancient Israel, Christianity may not have emerged 200 years later with its taproots deeply embedded within Judaism. The only Scripture Jesus knew was, of course, the Torah the malevolent Antiochus wanted to obliterate. The Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem mentioned in the New Testament was saved from desecration and rededicated to God 150 years before Jesus was born.

As Jews and Christians celebrate our distinctive festivals of faith and light, it is “altogether fitting and proper” that both communities remember Judah Maccabee’s long ago victory over the forces of darkness, despotism and death.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. This piece previously appeared in TheBostonPilot.com in 2014. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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A. James Rudin

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  • Lovely article connecting Jewish & Christian faiths & their links to Torah, light & God. Have a Happy Hannukah & Merry Christmas everyone!

  • Chanukah (Hanukkah)

    “Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is one of the most joyous times of the Jewish year. The reason for the celebration is twofold (both dating back to c. 165 BCE): the miraculous military victory of the small, ill-equipped Jewish army over the ruling Greek Syrians, who had banned the Jewish religion and desecrated the Temple; and the miracle of the small cruse of consecrated oil, which burned for eight days in the Temple’s menorah instead of just one.”

    “Originally a minor holiday, it has become more lavishly celebrated as a result of its proximity to Christmas.”

    Some candles burn for weeks so the menorah “miracle” is hardly miraculous.

    John 10: 22 “Then came the Festival of Dedication[a] at Jerusalem. It was winter,” supposedly gives credence to Hanukkah but does it? John’s gospel is generally discounted by most scholars as being historical. See also:

    http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?title=358_Feast_of_Dedication

    Christmas, the embellished story of the birth of a simple, preacher man named Jesus.

    As per most contemporary NT exegetes, his parents were Mary and Joseph although some say Jesus was a mamzer, the result of a pre-marital relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier.

    http:// www. earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

    Jesus was not born in Bethlehem at least the one we are familiar with and there were no pretty wingie thingies singing from on high, no slaughter of the innocents by Herod, no visiting wise men and no escape to Egypt.

    “John P. Meier – Professor at Notre Dame

    Meier [Marginal Jew I,216-219] notes that the “affirmation of Jesus’ descent from David might easily be placed alongside his birth at Bethlehem as a theologoumenon (a theological insight narrated as a historical event) if it were not for the fact that numerous and diverse streams of NT tradition also affirm Jesus’ Davidic lineage.”

    “Meier suggests that the belief that Jesus was “son of David” may have been held by Jesus’ followers prior to his death, with his resurrection then being understood as a form of enthronement. However, he notes that such messianic views, whatever their provenance, cannot prove Jesus was “literally, biologically of Davidic stock.”

    Mark’s gospel, the most historical of the four gospels, does not even mention the event.

    And from Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 269-272, “The historical yield of the Lukan infancy narrative in respect to the birth of Jesus is virtually nil (ditto for Matt. 1: 18-25, Matt. 2. 1-23)”

    http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?title=007_Of_Davids_Lineage

    Conclusion: the holy day of Christmas is historically a non-event. Ditto for the Feast of the Magi and the solemnity of Mary aka New Years day. Ditto for Hanukkah.

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