Transforming Hanukkah

Emphasizing God's role in the Hanukkah story.

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The raison d’etre assigned by the Rabbis to Hanukkah is made even more explicit by the haftarah--prophetic reading--they selected for the first Shabbat of Hanukkah. The reading from the book of Zechariah is about the prophet’s mystical vision of the rededication of the Second Temple. When the prophet sees a dream vision of a golden menorah, he asks an angel to explain its meaning, and the angel responds: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). Again, God’s role is paramount.

The Al Hanissim (“for the miracles”) prayer--recited during the Amidah and the Blessing after Meals throughout Hanukkah--also echoes this rabbinic perspective. In this prayer God is entirely responsible for the successful military revolt, whereas Mattathias and his sons are reduced to mere time markers as to when the events occurred (“in the days of the Hasmoneans”).

The prayer emphasizes God’s role, particularly with its insistent repetition of the word “you”:

“We thank You also for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds and acts of salvation, wrought by You, as well as for the wars which You waged for our fathers in days of old, at this season. In the days of the Hasmonean, Matityahu son of Yohanan, the High Priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous power of Greece rose up against Your people Israel to make them forgetful of Your Law, and to force them to transgress the statutes of Your will, then did You in Your abundant mercy rise up for them in the time of their trouble; You pleaded their cause, You judged their suit, You avenged their wrong, You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the arrogant into the hands of those that occupied themselves with Your Law….”

Just as the Rabbis of yesterday endowed the holiday with a meaning appropriate for their day and time and their religious theology, Jews today are finding in Hanukkah old and new meanings that resonate strongly. Some emphasize the nationalist and military aspects of Hanukkah, others the Maccabees’ role in defending religious freedom, and still others the metaphorical themes of light versus darkness, as expressed in a Secular Zionist Hanukkah song, “We have come to expel the darkness. With fire and light in our hands, each one of us is a small light, but all of us together are a powerful light.”

The rabbinical willingness to reinterpret the historical Hanukkah and endow it with new theological import is echoed in the efforts of today’s Jews to reflect and refract the history and texts of Hanukkah to create new images for their own lives.

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.