25th Kislev 5774
In Jewish tradition, Chanukkah is a minor festival, but it has grown in importance over recent years.
The historical story of Chanukkah, recounted in the Books of the Maccabees, in the Apocrypha, tells of the victory of those Jews who resisted the call to assimilation by the Syrian Greeks who wanted to replace Judaism with their own religion and culture. It was essentially a military victory won by a small group of guerrilla fighters, as the majority were attracted by at least some elements of the new way of life. The victory resulted in the reclaiming and rededication of the Jewish temple which had been desecrated. The word ‘Chanukkah’ means dedication, and probably the original 8 day festival of (re)dedication of the Temple was modelled on the festival of Succot, which, because of the fighting, was not able to be celebrated.
Later on, during a Talmudic discussion about candles, it becomes clear that Chanukkah was not widely known. This may have been partly because of the embarrassment the rabbis felt about celebrating a military victory. Therefore, in one place only, we have the account of the legend of the oil required for the dedication. According to the story, there was only enough for one day, but, miraculously, it lasted for eight.
So, Hanukkah had its place in the Jewish calendar, with the lighting of candles for eight days, Chanukkah geld (money) was given to the children, but it was a relatively minor one. Different factors have come together to make it appear that Chanukkah is almost a major festival in status.
One is its timing, and it is felt that one way of dealing with the problems presented by Christmas, is to make the observance of Chanukkah much more major. Clearly festivals of light are important in many traditions at this darkest time of the year. Bigger gifts are now given, and indeed exchanged for all ages, and there is much more emphasis on different ways of celebrating. This is good in one way, but there is a certain paradox in that a festival that had its origins in a victory against assimilation, has expanded because of pressures to assimilate.
There are additions to the synagogue liturgy for Chanukkah, and celebrations will be held there. However, the focus should be the lighting of the Chanukkiah each night, and the blessings are found on page of the Siddur of the Movement for Reform Judaism, beginning on page 374. The legend of the oil has led to doughnuts and latkes, (potato pancakes) being a particular feature of the festival. There is also a tradition of playing with a small spinning top, known as a dreidel or sevivon.
The readings are taken from the official luach prepared by the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK. Please note that the English text of these Torah portions is taken from the 1917 JPS translation and may differ from translations used in our communities. Occasionally alternative portions may be read, please contact your synagogue or rabbi to confirm the exact readings.