I thought readers would get a kick out of this. The Arbutus Shopping Centre has winter signs that all have the identical scene – basically Christmas gingerbread houses and bears snowboarding – that say things in several different languages, like “Joyeuses Fête,” “Happy Holidays,” in French, as well as something in Chinese and what you see in the photo in Hebrew.
I couldn’t understand one word of the Hebrew sign, so I took the photo and sent it to my daughter and son who decoded it immediately. It seems that the mall, with all good intentions, took the Hebrew words “Chag Sameach Shel” (“Happy Holiday of”) but wrote the Hebrew letters in the English order, left to right. Chag sameach shel Chanukah!
The Chabad-Lubavitch public chanukiyah in front of Karlsruhe Palace in Germany. When we light the candles, we are, in effect, praying that the light of renewal, love and peace will break out in the world. (photo by Michael Kauffmann via commons.wikimedia.org)
What is Chanukah about? Dreidels? Latkes? Doughnuts? Candles? All of the above? According to the rabbis of the Talmud, Chanukah is primarily about the remembering of a miracle. But what is the miracle?
Chanukah celebrates the miracle that Hashem did for us in the time of the Seleucids, when the Greek occupying power tried to wipe out Jewish culture and absorb us into the Hellenic world. Some say that the miracle is the oil that burned for eight days after the
Temple was re-consecrated, even though there was only enough for one day. Some say that it was the defeat of the Greek army, as the prayer “Al Hanissim,” recited every day during Chanukah, says. Perhaps it was both – the miraculous salvation of the Jews by a power not their own, which was clearly demonstrated by the oil that burnt for eight days. Perhaps that was Hashem’s way of signing His name.
Throughout Jewish history, many rabbis have pointed out that Chanukah is about chinuch, education. What is the way of education shown in Chanukah? It is the way of light. Each day, we light another candle to illumine the darkness and we place this menorah of lights in the window where we can show it to the world. Why on this holiday do we publicize the miracle? The Mevaser Tov (the Biala Rebbe Shlita) asks this question, pointing out, “We do not read the Megillah out in the street, or pour the four glasses of Pesach on the street corners!” The reason, he says, is that the light of Chanukah is a first dawning of messianic light – the light that has been hidden away since the beginning of the world. When we light the candles, we are letting loose some of this light and we are, in effect, saying a prayer that this light break out en masse in the world.
But what does this mean? What is the light of the Messiah? The Tanach says that the messianic age will be when: “the wolf will dwell with the lamb / and the leopard will lie down with the young goat / and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together / and a small child will lead them. / Also the cow and the bear will graze / their young will lie down together / and the lion will eat straw like the ox. / The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra / and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. / They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain / for the earth will be full of the knowledge of YHVH / as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)
The light of the Messiah is the light of renewal, love and peace. This light that we light both commemorates and anticipates a miracle – the miracle that human beings and God work together to save the world.
Why did Hashem publicly save the Jews fighting the Greek empire? The Aish HaKodesh (Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, died 1942, zt’l) explains by pointing out why the Jews of that time warranted a miracle. Surely Jews of many times and places (and certainly his own!) had suffered great losses at the hands of oppressors, murderers and tyrants. Homes, possessions, families had all been lost. Jews had been maimed, broken, scarred and killed. The reason, the Aish HaKodesh says, is that what most pained the Jews at that time was not the loss of loved ones, possessions or even life and limb. Not that they didn’t grieve for these things, but they were not what caused the Jews to rise up in prayer to God and in rebellion against the Greek empire. What animated the Jews was the threat not to their bodies, but to their spirit. When the Greek empire raised a hand against the values of Israel and threatened to wipe them out, then the Jews rose up. In other words, what provoked the miracle was that the Jewish people cared more about an injury to their spirits than their bodies. Faith like that, love like that, can provoke miracles.
We live in a time of great temptation to forget the spirit of Judaism in our anger and grief. The details are well known and do not need to be repeated here. The Jewish people, and the Jews of the state of Israel in particular, are attacked with lies, with knives, with axes, with stones, guns, bombs, cars, tractors and even buses. The temptation is great to respond with hatred, with violence. We are tempted to give back as we get, and some try to, usually with disastrous consequences. Witness the mob in Israel that attacked a Jew they thought was an Arab, or when another killed an Eritrean man. To lose sight of our highest values at a time like this – values of justice, peace, love for all the nations and unwavering menschlichkeit – is to lose our hope to be a light to the nations. That light is the light of Chanukah. Experience teaches us that only from that light will miracles come. That light itself is a miracle.
Matthew Gindinis a writer, lecturer and holistic therapist. As well as teaching holistic medicine, Gindin regularly lectures on topics in Jewish and world spirituality, and has a particular passion for making ancient wisdom traditions relevant in the modern world. His work has been featured on Elephant Journal, the Zen Site and Wisdom Pills, and he blogs at Talis in Wonderland (mgindin.wordpress.com) and Voices (hashkata.com).
Dreidels for sale in Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. (photo by Adiel lo via commons.wikimedia.org)
“Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay, and when it’s dry and ready, oh dreidel I shall play.” This children’s song has been sung for generations on Chanukah. A dreidel (Yiddish for spinning top; drey is Yiddish for spin) is a unique toy. It is still called by its original name all these centuries later and is enjoyed by children (and adults) of all ages the world over during Chanukah. It is also perhaps the oldest toy in history, but it is not only functional – it is wrought with symbolism.
In Hebrew, a dreidel is called a sevivon. It dates back to the time of the Greek-Syrian rule over the Holy Land, which set off the Maccabean revolt that culminated in the Chanukah miracle. Learning Torah was outlawed and was punishable by death. The Jewish children resorted to hiding in caves in order to study their beloved Torah. When Greek soldiers were on patrol and would approach them, the children would pull out their dreidels and pretend to be playing a game instead of learning. By playing dreidel during Chanukah, we are reminded of the courage of these brave children.
Dreidels generally do not require any maintenance at all. They are silent but strong. They are thrilled to be taken out every year for Chanukah from the cupboard to be a plaything, to see the sheer delight on the faces of generations of Jewish people who have survived so much persecution. They don’t mind if we touch them with our oily or sticky fingers, spin them endlessly, let them fall onto the floor repeatedly in our enthusiasm, smash them down mercilessly when we lose, throw them up in the air when we win, or spin them upside down to show off for our friends and family. They are so happy to be used for the eight-day festival, which this year begins on the evening of Sunday, Dec. 6, and continues until and including the last night, which will be on Sunday, Dec. 13.
Dreidels come in plastic, wood, metal and even crystal and are collector items, too. But, dreidels are not just objects to be admired and collected, they are actually used to play a game, which has rules. Players gather around a table and divide up a pile of items for tokens (coins, candies, peanuts, etc.). Players take turns spinning the dreidel to see how it will fall and then try to win the whole pot based on the turns. A dreidel has four sides and each side has a Hebrew letter: a nun, a gimmel, a hey and a shin.
After spinning, the top lands and the letter that is facing up determines what happens next. For nun, meaning nisht (nothing), you don’t do anything. For gimmel, meaning gantz (the whole thing), you get to keep the whole pot and then everyone has to put one item in to make a new pot. For hey (halb, or half), you get half of the pot and for shin (shtel arein), you have to put one in the pot. It boils down to having to give or take. It also gives us something to think about while we’re waiting for our next turn. Are we going to be givers or takers? Give: G-d gives us so much, so we can share with others this Chanukah (money, food, time, etc.). Take: we can take upon ourselves an additional aspect of spirituality (a Torah class, a mitzvah, synagogue attendance, etc.).
A dreidel is not a simple toy either, though. It is imbued with the blood of martyrs, the tears of the pious and the endurance of the faithful. No matter what material forms it, a dreidel is made of pretty tough stuff, just like us.
The letters on the dreidel spell out the Hebrew phrase, “Nes gadol haya sham,” which translates as, “A great miracle happened there” (meaning in the Holy Land). Israeli dreidels have the letter pey instead of shin to represent the word poh (here).
Aside from being a symbol of courage and a fun game, how does the small, simple dreidel embody the Chanukah message? What’s striking about the dreidel is that its “religious” aspect isn’t readily apparent upon looking at it. In fact, while it’s spinning, we can’t even make out any letters at all and certainly cannot make words out of the letters even when the dreidel stops. Its message is hidden.
Our lives are like a game of dreidel. In the course of our hectic day-to-day routine, we are often too busy to notice the “letters” – those small and big miracles that accompany us all the time. Taking a first breath upon waking in the morning, stepping onto the floor, being able to get dressed, being able to eat, pray, read the newspaper, drive to work and do all of the activities that we may take for granted in our busyness.
I like to think of the letters of the dreidel as modes of being. We all have our “gimmel” days, when we feel that everything is going great for us. Then there are our “hey” days, when things are going well but could be better. On the “shin” days, we spend time wishing for the hey and gimmel days. The “nun” days, when all the good things seem like a distant memory, we feel that we may never have another hey or gimmel day again in our whole lives.
Each of these letters though, represents only one face of the dreidel – a single perspective of the whole. Together, they spell out a sentence – and, every once in awhile, we have to give the spinning dreidel a break and reflect on its message, “A great miracle happened there.” This, of course, refers to the miracles of Chanukah that occurred in the Holy Land when the situation seemed beyond hope. The commitment of a few people turned the situation around (just like a dreidel) and brought about the miracle through G-d’s salvation. The Maccabees didn’t dwell on the fact that they were being oppressed and persecuted by an enemy larger and stronger than they were. They focused on the gimmel that was on the other side of the shin. They used this attitude to act to create a vehicle for a divine miracle.
It’s important to remember that whatever letter we seem to land on, it’s all part of one dreidel and that the dreidel has the message that miracles can and do happen every day. We can transform the dark situations of our lives into the bright lights of the Chanukah candles to help us battle the darkness. We only have to draw on the strength of the Maccabees, those brave children and the letters of the dreidel. When they fall, they get up, with a little help, and spin ecstatically over and over again.
After the terror we have seen over the past few months in Israel every single day, as well as the terror in Europe and all around the globe, we might think of how we can help during these horrific attacks on completely innocent civilians. In our physical world, there is the notion of cause and effect known as the “butterfly effect,” where a butterfly can flap its wings in one part of the world and cause a storm on the other side of the globe.
In a spiritual realm, a small positive action can push away and dispel much evil, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, said – a tiny light can dispel much darkness. How appropriate for us today. We can get involved in positive actions of any type wherever we find ourselves. This goodness will work to counteract the evil, even on the other side of the world.
We need not feel helpless at the terrible news we receive constantly, as there is much we can do through our positive actions. Let’s hope and pray that, as we say in the second blessing on the candles each night of Chanukah, “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time,” that G-d will continuously send us miracles and protection wherever we are in the world and wherever His protection is needed.
Esther Taubyis a local educator, writer and counselor.
Many Jews retain the custom of honoring Judith by eating cheese for Chanukah, and the custom of eating dishes like cheesecake and blintzes emerged from the story of Judith. Many Jews retain the custom of honoring Judith by eating cheese for Chanukah, and the custom of eating dishes like cheesecake and blintzes emerged from the story of Judith. (photo by Andrevan via commons.wikimedia.org)
Mention symbolic foods for Chanukah and everyone immediately responds – latkes and sufganiyot. But someone may say cheese pancakes. Cheese? Why?
The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), written in the 1500s by Rabbi Joseph Ben Ephraim Caro, a Jew from the Iberian Peninsula, is a digested version of commentaries on laws in the Talmud (commentaries on the first five books of the Bible). The Shulchan Aruch is meant to be an authoritative volume on commandments and, in this volume, there is a legend that dairy dishes and cheese pancakes were to be eaten for Chanukah to commemorate the bravery of Judith, who was a Hasmonean, the same clan as the Maccabee family. As well, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the 16th-century Polish scholar (1525-1572), wrote, in Orach Chaim, that eating cheese commemorates Judith feeding milk to the enemy.
So, who is Judith and why do some Jews honor her at Chanukah? The Book of Judith is part of the Apocrypha – books not included in the Bible as read by Jews and Protestants. Originally written in Hebrew, the 16 chapters of the standard version of the Book of Judith are in Greek. It is surmised that the author of this book was a Jew who lived and wrote in Palestine and probably lived near Shechem.
In the Book of Judith, interestingly enough, Judith is not mentioned in the first half of the story. In the second half, first her lineage is described then we are told that this young woman was a widow for three years and four months. She was the widow of Manasseh, who belonged to her tribe and who suffered some kind of heat stroke while overseeing the barley harvest and subsequently died in the town of Bethulia in northern Samaria where they lived. Bethulia is near where Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. It was also a city in the hill country of Samaria that occupied a narrow, important pass at the entrance of Judea, from Jerusalem to Jezreel.
We read: “She was beautiful in appearance and was very lovely to behold.” Judith was also wealthy, having been left gold and silver and menservants and maidservants and cattle and lands.
In the story, it is related that Bethulia was under siege by the army of Holofernes, commander-in-chief of the sixth-century BCE Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar. Holofernes was a soldier sent to destroy any people who did not support his king. In the story, he cut off the water supply of Bethulia. After 34 days, when the town leaders were ready to surrender to Holofernes, the town magistrate, Uzziah, suggested five more days as a compromise to see if G-d would intervene.
Judith was upset that her countrymen had no trust in G-d and did not approve of the five-day compromise, so she sent her maid to summon the town magistrates. She chastised them for putting G-d to a test, and she urged them to call upon G-d. “Therefore, while we wait for His deliverance, let us call upon Him to help us, and He will hear our voice, if it pleases Him.”
Of course, the people were thirsty, and Uzziah told Judith to pray for rain. She was not happy with that suggestion, so she convinced the magistrates to let her try to do something independently – “Stand at the town gate tonight so that I may go out with my maid…. Only, do not try to find out what I am doing; for I will not tell you until I have finished what I am about to do.”
First, she put ashes on her head and uncovered the sackcloth, then she prayed to G-d to hear her, and she prayed for strength to G-d to strike down the enemy. “Give to me, a widow, the strong hand to do what I plan.”
She then went to her house with her maid, removed her widow’s clothes, which she had worn for the past three years, washed her body, anointed herself, braided her hair and dressed as beautifully as when she was married. She adorned herself with bracelets and chains and rings and earrings and ornaments “to entice the eyes of all the men who might see her.”
She and her maid then went outside the city gates with wine and oil, roasted grain, fig cakes and bread, and dishes on which to eat. Together, they went down to the gate of Bethulia where Uzziah and the elders stood. They opened the gate and she and her maid walked down the mountain, past the valley until they were out of sight.
Judith was greeted by the Assyrian soldiers, who took her into custody. They inquired who she was and where was she going. She told them she was a woman of the Hebrews, fleeing from them. She told the soldiers she had information on the Israelites for Holofernes and she would show him how to capture the hill country. The soldiers then chose 100 men to take her to his tent.
The men who were with Holofernes left his tent, and Judith went inside, where Holofernes was laying on a bed under a canopy woven with purple and gold and emeralds and precious stones. She bowed before him, and his servants helped her up. He told her not to be afraid; he had never hurt anyone willing to serve Nebuchadnezzar. They talked, and she told him she would give him information so he could attack Bethulia. Holofernes and his servants were impressed.
Judith told him her people had exhausted their food supply and would kill their livestock. She devised a plan for Holofernes to go against them with his army and she would lead him to Jerusalem. Holofernes was delighted with her beauty and her wisdom.
Holofernes offered Judith food and drink, but she refused. She then left and went to sleep in her tent. She remained in his camp for three days and, each night, she bathed in a nearby spring and then returned to her tent. On the fourth day, Holofernes asked his eunuch to persuade Judith to come to a banquet in his tent. It appeared she had gained his trust. This time, she accepted. She adorned herself, and her maid entered his tent and placed skins on the ground near where Holofernes was sitting.
When Judith entered, we read: “Holofernes’ heart was ravished with her and his passion was aroused, for he had been waiting for an opportunity to seduce her from the day he first saw her.”
Judith drank and ate what her maid prepared. “Holofernes was greatly pleased with her, and drank a great quantity of wine, much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born.”
His servants left them alone, and he fell asleep dead drunk. Only Judith and Holofernes were in his tent. Her maid was outside. Judith prayed for help from G-d. “Now, indeed, is the time to help your heritage and to carry out my design to destroy the enemies who have risen up against us.”
She then took Holofernes’ sword, took hold of his hair and struck his neck twice to cut off his head. She pulled his body off the bed and covered it with the canopy. She gave the head to her maid to put in their food bag. They left the camp and returned to Bethulia.
When the men of the city heard her voice, they called the elders to gather at the city gate and open it for her. Judith took the head of Holofernes out of the bag and showed it to them. They were astonished, and they thanked G-d. She told them to hang the head on the wall. At daybreak, she said, they should take up their weapons and look as if they were going to attack the Assyrian outpost. Holofernes’ men will run to Holofernes, she said, they will panic and flee, and the men of Bethulia will pursue them and cut them down.
At dawn, the men of Bethulia hung the head of Holofernes on the highest part of the wall and waited at the mountain passes with their weapons. The Assyrian soldiers could not believe their eyes, so they went to Holofernes’ tent and found his body on the floor. The eunuch ranted and raved about what this woman had done.
When the army heard the eunuch, “overcome with fear and trembling,” they rushed out and fled through the hill country. The Israelite soldiers chased after these enemies and slaughtered them and took their possessions.
The high priest came from Jerusalem to salute Judith and bless her. The people plundered the camp for 30 days. He gave the tent of Holofernes and the general’s possessions to Judith. Then, all of the women of Israel ran together to see Judith and they blessed her and performed a dance in her honor. They adorned her with olive branches, and she went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women, and the men followed the women.
The procession continued to Jerusalem, where Judith took the possessions of Holofernes and offered them as a gift to G-d. The celebrations in Jerusalem lasted three months, after which Judith and the townspeople returned to Bethulia. Judith continued to live there and rejected all the proposals from men who wanted to marry her. At the age of 105, she freed her maid and distributed her property since she had no children. She died and was buried in a cave in Bethulia with her husband.
“No one ever again spread terror among the Israelites during the lifetime of Judith, or for a long time after her death.”
Some scholars have come up with another reason that Judith is a heroine. Both 11th-century French talmudic scholar Rashi and 14th-century Spanish scholar Rabbi
Nissim ben Reuven Gerondi maintained that the Greeks had decreed that all virgins about to marry had to submit themselves to a prince prior to marriage. Because Judith, the daughter of Yohanan the high priest, fed the governor cheese that made him sleepy, and she seized the opportunity to chop off his head, she thus saved the virtue of all future brides from sexual exploitation (Mishnah Berura).
This story in the Mishnah says Judith fed Holofernes cheese to make him thirsty. Since Judith lived about the same time as the clan from which the Maccabee brothers came, and they are the heroes of Chanukah, around the 14th century, some Jews instituted on the eating of cheese pancakes and cheese blintzes at Chanukah in honor of her heroism.
According to an article in Schechter on Judaism (Vol. 4, issue 4, December 2003), entitled “Insight Israel,” Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, confirms the original story that, in Orach Chaim, section 670:2 of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Isserles relates: “It is customary to recite songs and praises [to God] at the festive meals which are common [on Chanukah] and then the meal becomes a mitzvah meal. Some say that one should eat cheese on Chanukah because the miracle occurred through milk which Judith fed the enemy (Kol Bo and RaN).”
Golinkin writes: “Indeed, that is what the Kol Bo and Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (RaN) wrote. In his commentary to Rabbi Yitzhak Alfassi (the Rif) on Shabbat 23a … he says that, ‘it says in a midrash that the daughter of Yohanan [the high priest] fed the enemy leader cheese to get him drunk and cut off his head and they all fled, and, therefore, it is customary to eat cheese on Chanukah.’
“The Kol Bo, which is an anonymous halachic work written in Provence in the early 14th century, has a slightly different version of the story. It says that the daughter of Yohanan the high priest fed the Greek king ‘a cheese dish in order that he become thirsty and drink a lot and get drunk and lie down and fall asleep.’ That is what transpired; she then cut off his head and brought it to Jerusalem and, when his army saw that their hero had died, they fled, and that is why it is the custom to cook a cheese dish on Chanukah.”
The question, of course, is where did RaN and Kol Bo find this story? It sounds a lot like the story of Judith and Holofernes, as found in the apocryphal Book of Judith. Indeed, cheese is mentioned in some ancient versions of Judith 10:5, which lists the foods that Judith took with her when she left the besieged city to visit Holofernes. Nevertheless, Judith 12:17-20 describes the way in which Judith got Holofernes to go to sleep; it says explicitly that Judith gave him wine to drink and not a cheese dish. Medieval Jews knew the story of Judith from medieval Hebrew sagas called “The Story of Judith” and the like. Some 18 versions of the story have been published. Most of those versions, including the Book of Judith itself, say that Judith gave Holofernes wine to drink, but a couple of the versions do indeed mention milk or cheese.
“Ma’aseh Yehudit,” which was first published in Sefer Hemdat Yamim (Livorno, 1763), says that Judith “opened the milk flask and drank, and also gave the king to drink, and he rejoiced with her greatly and he drank very much wine, more than he had drunk in his entire life.” In other words, according to this version of the story, Judith gave Holofernes both milk and wine. It is clear that the author was influenced by the story of Yael and Sisera in the Book of Judges, because the phrasing was borrowed from Judges 4:19.
“Megillat Yehudit” relates that Judith, after fasting, asked her maidservant to make her two levivot (pancakes or fried cakes). The servant made the levivot very salty and added slices of cheese. Judith fed Holofernes the levivot and the slices of cheese “and he drank [wine] and his heart became very merry and he got drunk and he uncovered himself within his tent and he lay down and fell asleep.”
Finally, the milk and cheese version of the Judith story is mentioned in a Hebrew poem for Chanukah published by R. Naftali Hacohen in 1757: “… It is mitzvah to eat and rejoice / eating cheese – one cannot force. / It is customary to remember, not to forget / the story of Judith who did it on purpose / to feed him milk to make him sleep.”
American Jewish writer Rahel Musleah discovered that Jews of Tunisia celebrate Rosh Chodesh Tevet, which falls at the end of Chanukah, with chag habanot, festival of the daughters. Mothers give honey cakes and gifts to their daughters, men give gifts to their fiancées and they eat a festive meal to honor Judith.
Scholars have tried their hands at coming up with other reasons why one eats cheese dishes for Chanukah with a little gematria. The Assyrian oppressors forbade the celebration of Rosh Chodesh, Shabbat and brit milah. If one takes the first letter of the Hebrew word for month, chet from chodesh; the second letter of the Hebrew word for Sabbath, the bet of Shabbat; and the third letter of the Hebrew word for circumcision, the lamed of milah, you get the Hebrew word chalav, which is milk.
Matthew Goodman, the Food Maven of the Forward newspaper maintains that the first latkes were probably made from curd cheese and fried in butter or olive oil. By the Middle Ages, as Jews migrated into Eastern Europe, butter and oil were expensive and poultry fat became a frying agent, thus cheese would not be used. By the 16th century, pot cheese was either unavailable or expensive, so first buckwheat flour and then potatoes were substituted and, ultimately, potato pancakes became common fare for Chanukah.
Meanwhile, many Jews retain the custom of honoring Judith by eating cheese for Chanukah, and the custom of eating dishes like cheesecake and blintzes emerged from the story of Judith. Some believe the salty cheese that Judith served Holofernes may have been in the form of fried cakes. Recipes for ricotta pancakes in Italy and feta cheese pancakes in Greece may be modern versions of these ancient fried cakes.
It is a custom that women do no work on Chanukah as long as the lights are burning, and they should not be lenient in this matter. Among some Sephardi communities, women refrain from work all day during Chanukah. In other communities, this custom is followed only on the first and last days. On the seventh night, women sing, dance, drink wine and eat foods made from cheese.
The reason for particular emphasis of Chanukah observance on the part of women goes back to the harsh decree issued by the Greeks against the daughters of Israel – that every girl who was to be married was to be brought first to the Greek ruler. Additionally, the miracle itself came about through the heroism of a woman.
Among Ashkenazim, many serve latkes with sour cream, and will partake in blintzes. But, for the most part, serving cheese dishes at Chanukah is more popular in the Sephardi tradition. Sephardim typically prepare various rudimentary doughnuts (bunuelos and loukoumades) and fried pastries, such as shamlias (fried dough strips) and zalabiya (batter poured into hot oil in a thin spiral, similar to Amish funnel cakes, and coated with syrup or honey). North African Jews enjoy debla, dough rolled to resemble a rose, deep-fried and dipped in sugar or honey. Italians honey-dip deep-fried diamond-shaped pieces of yeast dough called frittelle. The Bene Israel in India prepare milk-based fried pastry called gulab jamun.
Whichever traditions you follow, you might want to add a new one to honor Judith.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads weekly walks in English in Jerusalem’s market.
Fray Juan Ricci (1600-1681), sketch of the menorah as described in Exodus, undated. The number of lights on the chanukiyah – eight – is a break with the traditional seven-branched menorah. (photo by Ellen Prokop via commons.wikimedia.org)
The Festival of Lights is unique. We celebrate it for eight days, when most other Jewish festivals and holy days last one or two days or, at the most, seven. The number of lights – eight – is also a break with the traditional seven-branched menorah, which was rekindled in the Temple after the victory over the Syrian-Greeks. We also add a special prayer, “Al Hanissim,” whereby we thank G-d for the deliverance from our enemies:
“Thou didst deliver the strong into the hands of the weak; the many into the hands of the few; the wicked into the hands of the righteous; and the arrogant into the hands of those who occupied themselves with Thy Torah.”
At each morning service, we relate biblical accounts of the dedication of the altar at the time of Moses, and the gifts brought by the 12 princes of Israel. We are comforted, as a small nation against today’s sea of evil, by the words: “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)
Even though the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, it did not affect celebrating Chanukah because it is centred mainly on the home. In the third century CE, when our enemies launched their persecution of the Jewish people, when kindling Chanukah lights was forbidden, as often happens, this later awakened special esteem for the rite. It became a sanctification of G-d’s name, with special blessings.
Light has great significance in Judaism. Even during the plague of darkness in Egypt, we are told “all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10:23) Although Chanukah imposes minimum religious restrictions, we are required to kindle the lights, stating that this commemorates “the miracle, deliverance, deeds of powers of salvation” wrought by the Almighty at this season. We are instructed not to use the lights for any utilitarian purpose – they are only to be seen. We pray to be placed “on the side of light” and the mystical book of Zohar promises “a palace of light that opens only to him who occupies himself with the light of Torah.”
Why did it take the priests eight days to prepare more olive oil for the Temple menorah? The 25th of Kislev marked the peak of the winter olive harvest season. The Maccabees’ hometown of Modiin lay in the heart of the country’s richest olive-growing region. They could have quickly picked the olives, prepared the oil and rushed it to the Temple in Jerusalem, a day’s walk away.
The explanation is that the special oil required for the menorah was clear oil of beaten olives (Shemot 27:20). It was a two-part operation: first, the beating and, then, the resulting mash was piled into flat fibre baskets and weighted to squeeze out the oil. It was not extracted by pressure, but allowed to seep out drop by drop. This process took much longer, producing an oil free of sediment and impurities, which burned a clear flame.
The date of Chanukah is related to the winter solstice, when the longest night of the year gives way to a gradual increase in the length of each day. When the Greeks first desecrated the Temple, they offered sacrifices to Zeus on the solstice. Upon the Temple’s liberation, three years later, the Jews renewed their service to G-d on the anniversary of the day it had been desecrated, as a gesture of defiance.
The Festival of Lights takes on special meaning at this time of darkness. In Israel, we see daily stabbings, shootings, car rammings and murders of Jews. But, no matter how dark the days of intolerance and racism worldwide, Chanukah has special meaning. The miracle is not just the supernatural one of the flask of oil. It is that beacon of light, the passion of man that transcends the momentary and the opportune. The Chanukah lights, like the Jewish people, refuse to be extinguished.
The schools of Hillel and Shammai debated how the chanukiyah’s candles should be lit. (photo by Gil-Dekel via commons.wikimedia.org)
The following is an excerpt from the Chanukah chapter of Inside Time: A Chassidic Perspective on the Jewish Calendar, published by the Meaningful Life Centre.
“The School of Shammai says: on the first day, one lights eight lights; from here on, one progressively decreases. The School of Hillel says: on the first day, one lights a single light; from here on, one progressively increases.” (Talmud, Shabbat 21b)
Visit, or simply pass by, a Jewish home on any of the eight evenings of Chanukah, and there will be the lights burning in the doorway or window proclaiming the celebration of the Chanukah miracle to the street and to the world at large. They will also be proclaiming which night of Chanukah it is. On each of the eight nights of Chanukah, a different number of flames is kindled, expressing that night’s particular place in the festival. On the first night of Chanukah, there will be one flame illuminating the street; on the second night, two flames, and so on.
Actually, the Talmud records two opinions on how each Chanukah night should identify itself and radiate its unique light into the world. This was one of the halachic issues debated by the two great academies of Torah law, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The sages of Hillel held that the Chanukah lights should increase in number each night, in the familiar ascending order. The sages of Shammai, however, were of the opinion that eight flames should be lit on the first night, seven on the second, and so on, in descending number, until the eighth night of Chanukah, when a single flame should be lit.
The Talmud explains that the sages of Shammai saw the Chanukah lights as representing the “upcoming days” of the festival – the number of days still awaiting realization. Thus, the number of lights decreases with each passing night, as another of Chanukah’s days is “expended.” On the first night, we have eight full days of Chanukah ahead of us; on the second night, seven days remain, and so on. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the lights as representing Chanukah’s “outgoing days,” so that the ascending number of flames reflects the accumulation of actualized milestones in our eight-day quest for light.
In practice, we follow the opinion of the Hillel school, and an ascending number of lights chronicle the progress of the festival. This is even alluded to in the very name of the festival: the Hebrew word Chanukah forms an acronym of the sentence “chet neirot vehalachah k’veit Hillel” (“eight lights, and the law follows the School of Hillel”).
Our acceptance of Hillel’s perspective on Chanukah is also expressed by the name traditionally given to the eighth day of Chanukah – the only day of the festival to be distinguished by a name of its own – Zot Chanukah.
The name Zot Chanukah is based on a phrase from that day’s Torah reading, and literally means, “This is Chanukah.” This is in keeping with the Hillelian vision of Chanukah, in which the final day of Chanukah – the day on which all eight days of light have been actualized – marks the climax of the festival. Only on the eighth day can we say, “This is Chanukah. Now we ‘have’ the entire Chanukah.” (From the Shammaian perspective, the first day of Chanukah would be Zot Chanukah.)
What is the basis for these two visions of Chanukah? And why is the view of the School of Hillel so decisively embraced, to the extent that it is implicit in the very name Chanukah, and in the name given to its culminating day?
There are two primary ways in which one might view something: a) in light of its potential, or b) by its actual, manifest state. We might say of a certain person: “He has tremendous potential, but his actual performance is poor.” The same can be said of a business venture, a relationship, an experience, or anything else. Or, we might say: “There’s potential for disaster here, but it can be contained and prevented from actualizing.”
Some of us are potential-oriented, which means that we would admire the person, invest in the venture, stick it out with the relationship and treasure the experience – depending upon its potential. Some of us are more actual-oriented, viewing things in terms of their actual, tactual impact upon our reality.
This is a recurring theme in many of the disputes between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. For example, the sages of Shammai consider the moment of the Exodus to have been the eve of Nissan 15, when the people of Israel were free to leave Egypt, while the sages of Hillel place the moment at midday of the following day, when the Jews actually exited Egypt’s physical borders. In another debate, the sages of Shammai consider a fish susceptible to ritual impurity from the moment the fisherman pulls his catch out of the water, since at this point the fish has been removed from the environment in which it might possibly live; the sages of Hillel disagree, contending that as long as the fish is actually alive (though its potential for continued life has been destroyed), it is immune to contamination, as are all other living plants and animals.
This is also the basis of their differing perspectives on Chanukah. The School of Shammai, which views things in terms of their potential, sees the first day of Chanukah, with its potential for eight days of light, as the point in which all eight days are “there.” After one day has “gone by” and passed from potential into actuality, there are left only seven days in their most meaningful form – the potential form. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the actual state as the more significant. To them, the eighth day of Chanukah, when all eight dimensions of the festival have been actualized, is when the festival is at its fullest and most “real.”
We are creatures of the actual. We cannot live on potential nourishment, or be emotionally satisfied by potential relationships. On the whole, we judge people by their actual conduct, as opposed to their potential to behave a certain way. Reality, to us, is what is, not what might be.
This is largely due to the fact that we are physical beings. It is a most telling idiosyncrasy of our language that “immaterial” means “insignificant”: if we cannot touch it or see it, it’s not real to us. Also, because of our finite and limited nature, we possess potentials that we will never actualize because we haven’t enough energy, resources or willpower to carry them out, or simply because we won’t live long enough to do so. So, the existence of a potential or possibility for something is not enough, for how do we know that it will amount to anything? Indeed, we often judge a thing’s potential by the actual: if this much has been actualized, this “proves” that there is potential worthy of regard.
Envision, however, a being who is neither physical nor finite; a being not limited by space, time or any other framework. In such a being, potential does not lack actualization, as everything is “as good as done.” On the contrary: potential is the purest and most perfect form of every reality – the essence of the thing, as it transcends the limitations and imperfections imposed upon it when it is translated into physical actuality.
For G-d, then, the potential is a higher form of being than the actual. This is why we say that, for G-d, the creation of the world did not constitute an “achievement” or even a “change” in His reality. The potential for creation existed in Him all along, and nothing was “added” by its translation into actuality. It is only we, the created, who gained anything from the actual creation of the world.
So, when the sages of Shammai and Hillel debate the question of which is more significant from the perspective of Torah law, the actual or the potential, they are addressing the more basic question: Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? When Torah law enjoins us to commemorate the Exodus, when it legislates the laws of ritual impurity or when it commands us to kindle the Chanukah lights, does it regard these phenomena from the perspective of its divine author, in whom the potential is the ideal state, or from the perspective of its human constituency, who equate real with actual?
Whose Torah is it, ours or G-d’s? Both Shammai and Hillel would agree that it is both.
The Torah is the wisdom and will of G-d. But, as we proclaim in the blessing recited each morning over the Torah, G-d has given us His Torah, for He has delegated to mortal man the authority to interpret it and apply it. Thus, G-d did not communicate His will to us in the form of a detailed manifesto and a codified list of instructions. Instead, He communicated a relatively short (79,976-word) Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses), together with the Oral Torah – a set of guidelines by which the Written Torah is to be interpreted, decoded, extrapolated and applied to the myriad possibilities conjured up by the human experience.
So, while the entire body of legal, homiletic, philosophical and mystical teaching we know as Torah is implicit within the Written Torah, G-d designated the human mind and life as the tools that unlock the many layers of meaning and instruction contained within its every word.
The Torah is thus a partnership of the human and the divine, where a kernel of divine wisdom germinates in the human mind, gaining depth, breadth and definition, and is actualized in the physicality of human life. In this partnership, our human finiteness and subjectivity become instruments of the divine truth, joining with it to create the ultimate expression of divine immanence in our world – the Torah.
Which is the more dominant element of Torah, divine revelation or human cognition? Which defines its essence? What is Torah – G-d’s vision of reality or man’s endeavor to make his world a home for G-d? At times, the Torah indicates the one; at times, the other. We have the rule that “The words of Torah are not susceptible to contamination.” A person who is in a state of ritual impurity (tum’ah) is forbidden to enter the Holy Temple; but there is no prohibition for him to study Torah. Why is he forbidden to enter a holy place but permitted to think and speak holy words? Because the Torah is not only holy (i.e., an object subservient to G-d and receptive to His presence) – it is divine. It is G-d’s word, and the divine cannot be compromised by any impurity.
On the other hand, another law states that, “A teacher of Torah who wishes to forgive an insult to his honor can forgive it.” This is in contrast to a king who, if insulted, has no right to forgive the insult, and has no recourse but to punish the one who insulted him. For a king’s honor is not his personal possession, but something that derives from his role as the sovereign of his people; one who insults the king insults the nation, and this is an insult that not even the king has the authority to forgive. Yet does not one who insults a Torah scholar insult the Torah? How does the scholar have the right to forgive the Torah’s insult? The explanation given is that “the Torah is his.” He who studies Torah acquires it as his own; G-d’s wisdom becomes his wisdom.
Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? Both descriptions are valid; both are part of the Torah’s own self-perception. In certain laws and circumstances, we find the divinity of Torah emphasized; in others, its human proprietorship.
Thus, in a number of laws, the schools of Shammai and Hillel debate which definition of Torah is the predominant one. The sages of Shammai believe that in these particular applications of Torah law, the divinity of the Torah predominates. The Torah’s perspective is synonymous with G-d’s perspective, meaning that the potential of a thing is its primary truth. The sages of Hillel see these laws as belonging to the “human” aspect of Torah, so that the Torah’s vision of reality is the human, actual-based perspective.
The human festival
In the great majority of disputes between the sages of Shammai and Hillel, the final halachic ruling follows the opinion of the School of Hillel. Halachah is the application of Torah to day-to-day life. In this area of Torah, it is the human element which predominates; here, reality is defined in terms of the actual and tactual, rather than the potential.
But nowhere is the supremacy of the Hillelian view more emphasized than in the debate on Chanukah, where the very name of the festival, and the name given to its final day, proclaim that “the law follows the School of Hillel.” For Chanukah is the festival that, more than any other, underscores the human dynamic in Torah.
As noted above, the Torah consists of two parts: a) the divinely dictated words of the Written Torah; b) the Oral Torah, also communicated by G-d, but delegated to man. In the Oral Torah, G-d provides the guidelines and principles, while human beings follow these guidelines and apply these principles to derive and express the divine will.
The Oral Torah has two basic functions: to interpret the Written Torah and to legislate the necessary laws, ordinances and customs required to preserve the Torah and Jewish life through the generations.
Most of the festivals are explicitly ordained in the Written Torah. This is not to say that there is no “human element” involved in the biblically ordained festivals: the Oral Torah is still required to clarify each festival’s laws and observances. For example, the Written Torah commands us to dwell in a sukkah and take the “four kinds” on Sukkot, but the Oral Torah is needed to interpret the oblique biblical allusions that tell us how a sukkah is to be constructed and which plant species are to be taken. Still, the festivals themselves were instituted by direct divine revelation.
There are two festivals, however, that are rabbinical institutions: Purim and Chanukah. These belong to the second function of the Oral Torah – to institute laws and observances that derive not from a verse in the Written Torah, but which arise out of the historical experience of the people of Israel.
These, too, are Torah, for they were enacted in accordance with the principles revealed at Sinai. Before reading the Megillah on Purim or kindling the Chanukah lights, we say: “Blessed are You, G-d … Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to read the Megillah,” or “… to kindle the Chanukah lamp.” G-d is commanding us to observe these mitzvot, for it is He who granted the leaders of each generation the mandate to institute laws, ordinances and festivals. Yet, in these festivals, it is the human aspect of the Torah which predominates, while the divine aspect is more subdued.
Of the two rabbinical festivals, Chanukah is even more “human” than Purim. Purim was instituted during the era of prophecy, when G-d still communed directly with the greatest individuals of the generation. The story of Purim was written down and incorporated within the Holy Scriptures that are appended to the Written Torah. Thus, while Purim is technically an Oral Torah festival, it is closely related to the Written Torah.
Chanukah, however, occurred several hundred years later, when prophecy had ceased and the canon of the 24 books of the Tanach (Bible) had been closed. It thus belongs wholly to the Oral Torah – to the predominantly human aspect of the partnership. So, Chanukah is the environment in which the Hillelian perspective on Torah – Torah as it relates to our tactual experience of the world in which we live – reigns supreme.
Reb Cantor and Rabbi Yohon Abrahms paused at the top of the hill to watch the sun spread its warm red rays in a growing embrace across the Black Forest. (photo by Rainer Lück via commons.wikimedia.org)
It was an ordinary Chanukah in the village of Chelm, which was strange. Depending on who you talk to, Chelm is called a village of fools or of wise people, and there’s always something going wrong. This year, however … it was quiet.
Chanukah was neither early nor late. The weather was good – not too cold and not too hot. There was enough food so no one was hungry, and the lands surrounding Chelm were at peace; the Cossacks were far away. And, for once, no one got into an argument over whether the Americans should spell the holiday with an “H” or a “Ch.”
On the first night of Chanukah, families gathered and lit their candles according to the traditions of Hillel or Shammai, depending on whether they felt like building up to a big finish or starting off bright and getting more relaxed as each day passed.
“Something is going to happen,” worried Reb Cantor the merchant, as he huffed and puffed his way up Sunrise Hill for his morning exercise with Rabbi Yohon Abrahms, the schoolteacher.
“Something always happens,” said the young rabbi.
“Something bad,” said Reb Cantor. “It’s too quiet.”
“Not when you’re breathing so hard,” said Rabbi Yohon Abrahms.
They paused at the top of the hill to watch the sun spread its warm red rays in a growing embrace across the Black Forest.
“I’m still concerned,” said Reb Cantor.
“You wouldn’t be you if you weren’t,” said the young rabbi.
“I’ll race you to Mrs. Chaipul’s restaurant.”
“But you always win!” said Reb Cantor.
It was too late. The young rabbi was already running, and the fat merchant had no choice but to trundle after, hoping that he wouldn’t trip, fall and roll down the hill like a barrel.
By the time Reb Cantor caught up, Rabbi Abrahms was busy playing a friendly game with Joseph Katz, a well-known dreidel shark. Instead of wagering raisins on who would win, everyone was betting about how many coffee cups and teacups Joseph could rebound a dreidel off before landing on whatever letter he chose.
“Watch this,” Joseph said with a twinkle. He twirled a square top onto the table, where it ricocheted back and forth, striking five mugs and three cups before flying up, hovering over Rabbi Kibbitz’s plate of latkes, and then splashing down into the rabbi’s apple sauce.
“Nun!” said Joseph. “I win.” (In Chelm, foolish as it is, they say it takes nun to win.)
“You always do,” said Rabbi Kibbitz, who fished out the dreidel and wiped it off with a napkin before returning it to the young man.
“Sorry about that,” Joseph said.
Rabbi Kibbitz shrugged. “I’ve always felt that apple sauce is more of a garnish than a necessity.”
“How can you eat those latkes?” whispered Reb Stein, the baker. “I know you love your wife, but….”
Mrs. Chaipul, the rabbi’s wife (she kept her own name, which is another story) was listening from the kitchen to see how her husband would answer.
As the owner of the only kosher restaurant in Chelm, she was known as a miracle worker in the kitchen, with the exception of her lead-sinker matzah balls and her notoriously lethal latkes.
She knew, as did everyone in Chelm, that she had something of a culinary blind spot when it came to potato pancakes. She’d solved the problem at the annual Chanukah party by enlisting the help of Mrs. Rosen and her daughters, but her husband insisted that she still make her old recipe for him.
Rabbi Kibbitz smiled. “First of all, my stomach is protected by my belief in God.”
Everyone in the restaurant rolled their eyes.
“Secondly, it’s a question of scale,” he said. “When she cooks a small batch just for me, they’re quite good.”
“Really?” Reb Stein said.
“Would you like a taste?” the rabbi said, raising a piece on his fork.
“No, no, no, no!” Reb Stein said, hastily backing away. “I have work to do today.”
Even Reb Cantor, who had caught his breath by then, joined in as Reb Stein fled from the restaurant ahead of a wave of laughter.
Every night for seven more nights, candles were lit and the stories of the Maccabees were told. Songs were sung, dreidels spun, and latkes and doughnuts were fried.
More and more families were following the Schlemiel’s tradition of giving Chanukah presents to each other, but it wasn’t to excess. No one fought over whose present was best or biggest. And everyone remembered to give a little extra gelt to Rabbi Abrahms the schoolteacher to honor his contribution to their children’s lives.
On the last night it snowed, but everyone was home safe. They looked out their windows at the falling flakes, glad of their walls and roofs, and warmed themselves in front of their fires. And, as the candles finally burned down, the children were tucked into bed beneath comforters and blankets with a final goodnight kiss.
It was an ordinary Chanukah in the village of Chelm.
For once, nothing bad happened and nothing went wrong.
And that in itself was a miracle.
Mark Binder is the author of the award-winning Life in Chelm series, which includes A Chanukah Present, The Brothers Schlemiel and Matzah Mishugas. His latest book is Cinderella Spinderella. A professional storyteller, he regularly performs at synagogues, Jewish community centres and the National Yiddish Book Centre.
Chanukah-themed pet gifts can be found aplenty on the internet. Some examples? A bowtie for your dog, cat or ferret from moderntribe.com.
Pets are integral members of the family and there are many options to include your furry companion in Chanukah’s gift-giving celebration. Though most local pet stores will carry plush toys, chew bones and a variety of other treats for your pet, there are some truly cute and creative clothing and toys that are available via the internet – and which, if ordered soon, should make it in time for the holiday.
Moderntribe.com, a U.S. site, has a good selection of Chanukah-themed collars and leashes for your pet as well as plush toys including catnip-stuffed dreidels and gelt. For your cat and smaller dog, there are also Chanukah-themed bow ties and other clothing. Or perhaps a book titled How to Raise a Jewish Dog could be enjoyed by the whole family? The site has a section dedicated to such items.
Etsy.ca has both a Canadian and U.S. site and, in a similar way to eBay, allows vendors to post a variety of products for sale. What makes this site different is that most of the products are globally sourced and handcrafted by individual vendors. There is a great selection of Chanukah toys and gifts for your pet, especially on the U.S. site, though some of the vendors may not ship to Canada, so check that out first. A search of “Chanukah pets” on the site should bring up something your pet will enjoy. Etsy has a good selection of pet toys, T-shirts, hats and bandanas – including a dreidel-patterned harness outfit and double-sided bandanas that are also appropriate for your ferret!
Amazon.ca and Petsmart.ca are also good sites to browse because they both have shipping from Canada; but when using their search program make sure that you try a variety of spellings for the word Chanukah.
While it is a lot of fun to include our pets in the gift-giving tradition during Chanukah, it is also important to remember that the most important gift you can give your pet during this busy holiday season is your time. Time to exercise him or her, time to just show you return the love they give you every day of their lives.
It is also a time to be aware of the dangers that your pet may encounter at this time of year. Chocolate gelt can easily become accessible to dogs – and chocolate is very toxic for animals. Also, the temptation to treat your pet with the delicious food we humans indulge in at Chanukah can make them very sick. Latkes, with their onion component, can cause damage to red blood cells and the sugar and fat found in traditional doughnuts can cause digestive disorders in your pet. So, make sure your children know and show your love in other ways, perhaps with a stuffed singing dreidel, which can be found at multipet.com. It will be a hit with both dogs and kids, though after a few spins, you might be thankful that Chanukah, and the dreidel’s use, only comes once a year.
Leanne Jacobsen is a writer and longtime dog owner, as well as the director of sales at the Jewish Independent.
Chefs compete at the Centre for Judaism in the Lower Fraser Valley of British Columbia’s Iron Chef Chanukah Competition II. (photo from Centre for Judaism)
Last month, after the lighting of the menorah, dancing and refreshments, the Centre for Judaism in the Lower Fraser Valley of British Columbia turned into the Iron Chef Chanukah Stadium for Iron Chef Chanukah Competition II.
Simie Schtroks, shlucha and co-director of the Centre for Judaism, presented the teams and spectators with three secret ingredients and a variety of foods and spices that were to be used in creating the competing three dishes. During the busy hour, Chanukah songs were led by Avi Amrani, Ben Roling and Yaakov Dar together with Rabbi Falik Schtroks. Interviews of the chefs and their teams were conducted, and Ethan Dreyshner helped keep time. Spectators were able to participate in the judging based on the prominence of the secret ingredient, appearance and creativity, and judges Abraham Amrani, chef Aaron Gehrman, Ben Roling and Naomi Nelson took into account taste and originality, as well.
Chef Marat Dreyshner and Ella Dreyshner of ikosherbake.com emerged as the Iron Chefs once again. Winners won a gourmet dinner for four catered by Simie Schtroks. All participants were given a book called Seeds of Wisdom. There was great teamwork on both teams.
The Centre for Judaism thanks captain Rae Sank, Esther Roubini, Rita Roling, Joanne Yaakov, Penina Amrani, Debbie Cossever, Lev Titiafsky and Anna Kushelman, as well as Nava’s Creative Kosher for the sushi.
To be a contender, sponsor or team participant next Chanukah, contact Simie Schtroks at 604-440-7411.
A menorah-like drawing from Kuntillet Ajrud. Source: “The Asherah, the Menorah and the Sacred Tree” by J. E. Taylor, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (1995).
Though the religious symbolism of the menorah is consistent with Jewish mythology and ideology, the archeological record suggests that the significance of this symbol was influenced by surrounding religions of the region, which would have been preceded the conception of the menorah. For instance, lamps from the Middle Bronze Age composed of a bowl with seven sprouts for wicks on the rim have been found in Israel at Ta’anach and Nahariya. Such findings suggest that the precedent for a seven-branched oil lamp would have existed in the region.
Tree worship is common in religions throughout the world, and may have held particular significance in the Middle East due to their limited distribution. It’s not difficult to imagine, in a region constrained by water resources, the presence of a tree would indicate the presence of water and food, and would thus come to symbolize life. Furthermore, the generation-spanning longevity of trees, and their seasonal “rebirth” would perhaps lead some to associate trees with immortality. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the Tree of Life, which Jews are familiar with from the story of the Garden of Eden, is based on a Mesopotamian religious myth.
Mesopotamian depictions of the Tree of Life resemble the menorah, leading many scholars to speculate that the design of the menorah was influenced by Mesopotamian iconography. The Mesopotamians believed that the Tree of Life grew on a cosmic mountain; similarly, the branching menorah arises from a clearly defined base. The image of a tree on a mountain is also featured in the Hebrew flood myth (which may borrow heavily from Sumerian mythology), in which Noah’s dove retrieved an olive branch from a tree on a sacred mountain. We grant special significance to the central lamp on the menorah, which we call the shamash. Interestingly, Shamash is also the name of the Mesopotamian sun god. These are more than mere coincidences; these are evidence of cultural influence.
Ancient Semitic peoples, who lived in what is now modern-day Israel, Syria and Iraq, had a pantheon that included a goddess called Asherah, or sometimes called Athirat or Elat. Asherah was a fertility goddess, and believed to be the mother of the gods. Asherah is described in cuneiform documents from the first Babylonian dynasty as the bride of the king of heaven, and a mistress of sexual vigor and rejoicing. An Ugaritic text found at Ras Shamra, Syria, describes Asherah as the bride of El, creator of the world. Asherah was often depicted as a tree, usually with an ibex on either side. For example, a pitcher dated to the 13th century BC found at the archeological site of Tel Lachish in Israel bears a stylized depiction of a tree reminiscent of the menorah, with an inscription dedicated to the goddess Asherah. At an archeological site in the Sinai called Kuntillet Ajrud, a drawing was found of a lion with a menorah-like tree with ibexes on either side of it, bearing the inscription “Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah.”
An asherah is something described in both the mishnah and Babylonian Talmud as a sacred tree. Some scholars speculate that an asherah was a living, pruned sacred tree used during Canaanite cultic practices. Recall that the original description of the menorah used the term almond. The biblical name for almond was luz, which is also the name of the site in the Tanach in last week’s parashah, where Jacob had a dream in which a ladder reached toward heaven (like the branches of a tree/menorah), and afterward he erected an altar and renamed the site “the House of God,” Beit El, now thought to be the site Bethel. Archeological excavations at Bethel reveal it was a Canaanite centre for worship of the goddess Asherah. Scholars speculate that there may have been a pruned almond tree used in cultic practices dedicated to the goddess, and the menorah is a symbol of that specific tree. The Latin name for almond trees, Amygdalus, is likely derived from a Semitic root word for “great mother”; Asherah was considered by the Canaanites to be the great mother of the gods. The blooming of almond trees precedes spring, and Asherah was a fertility goddess. Tu b’Shevat, which once involved the lighting of the menorah, celebrates the blooming of the almond trees.
Sacred trees are important in Egyptian mythology, too. The Egyptians also believed in a Tree of Life, the acacia tree, which was also associated with the goddess Iusaset, the grandmother of the gods. Iusaset wore a solar disk on her crown, which harkens the shamash as the crown of the menorah. There was also an Egyptian goddess called Hathor, who was often interchangeably represented as a sycamore tree. Hathor was a mother goddess, the “living soul of trees,” and could take the form of a lion. In Egyptian art, the Hathor tree would often be depicted giving life and food to humans. When Egypt occupied Canaan, the cult of Hathor became entrenched in the region, and Hathor began to be correlated with the goddess Asherah. Another name used to describe a Canaanite/Egyptian tree mother goddess was Qetesh. Plaques recovered at archeological sites in Israel and Egypt depict Qetesh with ibexes by her side, above a lion, wearing a Hathor wig. Perhaps it is no coincidence, either, that the Hebrew word for holy is kadosh.
At some point in history, the ancient Jews took the deeply religious symbolism that was already present in the region and amalgamated it into the abstracted form of the menorah. Do these pre-Judaic influences somehow invalidate our culture? To the contrary, the archeological record only confirms that the symbolism and mythology of our culture are truly ancient. More importantly, the ancient Israelites did not live in a vacuum. They lived in a complex and cosmopolitan world, much like today. We were not alone, we coexisted with other diverse peoples and ideologies. And, after Sumer and Babylon fell into ruin, when the Sphinx and Ozymandias lay buried in the sand, and the library of Alexandria burned to the ground, we continued to tell our stories. When we light the candles of our chanukiyot this holiday, we continue a legacy that is thousands of years old. And that is cause to celebrate.
Ben Leyland is an Israeli-Canadian writer, and resident of Vancouver. This article is the second of a short series examining the menorah.