8 Questions & Answers for A Meaningful Hanukkah

Question: What historical event does Hanukkah commemorate?

The Hellenized Syrians, ruled by the Seleucid King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes wanted the Jews to give up their way of life – to stop studying Torah, to stop performing circumcisions and observing Shabbat, and to start bowing down to the “neon” gods they made. The Jewish people rose in revolt, led by Mattathias and his sons, the Maccabees, of whom Judah was the most famous. The struggle culminated in a great victory for the Jewish people, which ended in the recapture and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164-165 B.C.E. Insight: The Maccabean revolt is the first recorded struggle for religious freedom.

Why does it seem so easy to fight for religious freedom when it is threatened by an external force, but so difficult to appreciate it when we have it?

Q: What does “Hanukkah” literally mean?

“Hanukkah” is the Hebrew word for “dedication.” When the Jews defeated the Syrians, their first act was to cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem and remove the various pagan symbols and idols from it. Then they held a ceremony dedicating the Temple once again to God. Insight: The name of the holiday derives its name from the dedication ceremony to God. A question for you: What do you yearn to dedicate your lives to today?

Q: What was “Hellenism” and what does it teach us about life in America today?

“Hellenism” refers to the spread of the Greek culture, society, thought, political forms, and way of life throughout the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East by Alexander the Great and his successors. However, just as Greek ideas and practices spread, it was affected by and it absorbed the ideas and practices of the many cultures with which it came into contact, including Judaism, thus creating a “fusion of cultures”. Insight: Jews were attracted to and assimilated into the cosmopolitan Hellenized culture of the time, much like modern Jews are drawn into participation in American life today.

How can we continue to live a meaningful Jewish life and at the same time excel in our work or homework, commit to sports and keeping physically fit, play in the band or orchestra or immerse ourselves in what’s best of our secular culture….? How do we balance deeply ingrained competing values?

Q: What effect did Judaism have on the Hellenized world?

Although scholars teach us that the time period (from the Maccabees (circa 165 B.C.E.) to the Bar Kokhba rebellion (circa 132-135 C.E.) indicates the presence of some anti-Judaism sentiment, at the same time, Judaism attracted many non-Jews as converts. Judaism was a light to the nations at the time of its own developing festival of lights. What makes you proud to be a Jew?

Q: Who were the Hasmoneans and what was unique about them?

The Hasmoneans (the dynasty descended from the Maccabees) were both the priestly family and the only kings who exercised independent sovereignty over Israel, if only for a brief time, during the Second Temple period. Insight: The Hasmonean kings became Hellenized and the dynasty of those who rose up against tyranny and became a symbol against assimilation, ultimately became both tyrannical and highly assimilated.

A question for you: What examples do we have of Jews who attained wealth, success, and power, but who used their influence to nurture Jewish communities as well as foster strong relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish communities?

Q: What are some of our historical sources for Hanukkah and the Hellenistic World?

The First and Second Books of the Maccabees are our primary sources. Josephus’ Antiquities, which draws on these primary resources, and Daniel, also reflect this time period. Hanukkah is the most historically documented Jewish holiday. A question for you: How does historical context help us understand the meaning and motivations that sparked the events we preserve from our past?

Q: What connection does Hanukkah have to “Pikuach Nefesh” (Saving a Life)?

The First Book of the Maccabees relates an incident where fleeing Jews are attacked on the Sabbath by Antiochus’ men. Because they are too pious to fight back on the Sabbath, they are killed. Upon hearing of this, Mattathias and his followers suspend Torah law (that would prohibit fighting on the Sabbath) to save both Torah law and human life. Respect for human life is one of the highest Jewish values. So what are other Jewish values that you cherish?

Q: Why is Hannukah celebrated for eight days?

According to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), when the Jews entered the Temple to cleanse it, they found a flask of oil which had not been contaminated and which still carried the unbroken seal of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest0. As part of the dedication ceremony, they lit the oil, believing there was only enough to last one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.  A sense of the miraculous gives our lives depth and satisfaction; what miracles do you experience every day?

May you and your families enjoy a warm and meaningful festival of lights.


Chag Semeach,

Rabbi Aviva Berg