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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Big 'Nuk!

The holiday of Hanukkah is shrouded in mystery for most people, some Jews included. Over time, the celebration has become a bit deluded and competitive with Christmas in the category of traditions and merchandising. It vies for contention in the mentioning of winter holidays - and few people know a single thing about the holiday itself.

For starters, how to spell it.

The most common spelling out there is Hanukkah. H, not Ch - one n, two k's, and another h. Some versions opt with the Ch for that gutteral sound like the Hebrew letter used in the Hebrew name for the holiday. Some versions go with double n's, some a single k, and it's rare - but a few spellings drop off the h at the end for some reason. My unofficial name for the holiday stems from the few things all spellings agree on:

"The Big 'Nuk"

The 'Nuk, like Christmas, has roots going far back in history - with an original storyline that often gets twisted up into things pretty enough to make a gift card with or tell to a youth at bedtime. Christmas has its Santa Claus - the 'Nuk has a miracle of oil.

It all began long long ago, around 168 B.C.E. (That's 'Before the Common Era', since Judaism doesn't have much use for B.C. and A.D.). That was when the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus IV, declared that Judaism should be abolished. Jews were massacred, and soldiers literally went around "uncircumcising" people. (If you thought the idea of circumcision was painful, imagine a forceful method of "correcting" that!) Amid the slaughter, the Holy Temple of Jerusalem was looted and desecrated. Eventually, Antiochus IV demanded that an altar to Zeus be erected in the Temple, and the rebellion officially started with Mattathias and his five sons: John, Simon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah. In the rebellion, Mattathias was killed and Judah took over as leader of the rebellion, complete with a new title, "Judah Maccabee" - or "Judah the Hammer".

The Jews proved, as usual, to be a feisty bunch and in 165 BCE, the revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. They stormed the Temple and celebrated the "chanukah" - the "Rededication" of the Holy Temple. (That's where the holiday gets its name.) This is the point where the celebration gives birth to the holiday legends. In all the historical accounts, there is no "miracle" - other than winning a rebellion against a monarch's rule with such a small militia. The books simply state that the rededication celebration lasted eight days.

This eventually became a legend of sorts, to further explain WHY the celebration lasted so long (aside from pure jubilation). The legend goes on to say that when they went to rededicate the Temple, the amount of holy candle oil left undesecrated was only enough to last for one night, yet the flames lasted an entire eight nights - the amount of time necessary to produce and bless a new batch of oil for lighting the menorah in the Holy Temple. Another explanation for the eight-day celebration was that the rebellion had lasted so long that another important holiday had been passed by - the celebration of Sukkot, which lasts eight days. Upon the end of the rebellion, the Jews celebrated a belated Sukkot for those eight days. Either way, due to the miracle of the oil story or the importance of candles/lights in the spirit of the Holy Temple's rededication - the holiday is also known as the "Festival of Lights".

So the celebration of the miraculous oil, or just the rededication lighting of the Temple's menorah, sparked the tradition of lighting the chanukiyah for eight nights. This as well was debated. There were two schools of thought regarding the lighting of the candles: one that starts with eight candles and reduces by one each night, the other starting with one and adding one each night. Eventually, the addition of candles was the winner of the debate. More specifically, the tradition is that the first candle goes on the far RIGHT, and added candles extend to the LEFT. HOWEVER, the candles each night are lit (by the "shamash" candle) going from LEFT to RIGHT, lighting the newest candle first.

Looking for MORE candle-related traditions?

On the Sabbath, the candles that are lit are the last flames created and are therefore used as a source of light, sometimes as a heating element, and cannot be extinguished except by naturally dying out. On the Big 'Nuk, the candles are purely for the purpose of celebration. They are NOT to be used as lighting or heating or anything other than enjoyment and looking pretty. For this reason, it is okay to put them out - should the need arise, though I'm not sure why one would...

While the tradition of giving presents is modern, and usually attributed to competition with Christmas, there are historic traditional foods that are eaten - and make this holiday #2 of my favorite Jewish holidays for the food aspects. Of course, when the celebration and ensuing miracle tales are all about the usage of OIL - the traditional foods of the Big 'Nuk are all FRIED! Fried potato pancakes ("latkes") rank the highest, but another traditional fried food is "sufganyot" - JELLY DOUGHNUTS! As for chocolate coins, that tradition is based on the games with dreidles and that coins/money were given to children as holiday gifts. 20th-century chocolatiers created the gold-foiled chocolates, which replaced real coinage - and present-giving took over thanks to competition with Christmas.

Let me end this with the traditional THIRD prayer said over the candles on the FIRST night of Hanukkah (tonight):

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu, v'kiyemanu, vehigi-anu laz'man hazeh.
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us in life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.

Okay, I believe that covers everything! Anything I left out? Anything??

Oh yes, Hanukkah Harry and the Hanukkah Bush - purely modern holiday-wannabe hilarity.

And my #1 favorite Jewish holiday, since the 'Nuk ranked #2?

It's called "Purim", and is practically a combination of Hallowe'en and St. Patty's Day - combining costumed parties with the celebration of getting so drunk you can't tell "Mordechai" from "Haman". And that's PRETTY drunk!

But that's another story, and another rant, for another day. Happy Hanukkah!

1 comment:

Holly said...

Cute article! Your articles always make me laugh and this one actually taught me something!

God bless,

On The wRite Side