Mixed Messages of Hanukkah

by Morris Dweck


The prayers and actions of Hanukkah send a mixed message. On the one hand we have the lighting of the menorah, but on the other hand we have the prayer of "The Days of Matityahu" (Beyimei Matityahu). In our essential daily prayer, the Amidah, there is no mention of the miracle of the lights. Similarly during the action of lighting the menorah we do not mention our victory in battle. Furthermore what warrants the miracle of Hanukkah to be established as a holiday altogether. There have been greater miracles, as when God stopped the sun in Gibbon, that have no day of commemoration.

The commemoration of Hanukkah is one which involves both the idea of victory in war and an outright miracle, the central idea being the former. If we had not been granted victory from God the ceremony of the menorah would have meant nothing. The idea of Hanukkah is that we stood on the brink of extinction and God saved us. But how do we really know that God saved us. Maybe it was the cunning of Matityahu that led to the victory of the Jews. The answer lies in the light. By performing the outright miracle of the lights, God was revealing his direct intervention in the battle and victory of the Jews.

Alone neither a victory nor a miracle warrant a day of commemoration. It is only when God reveals his direct intervention in a victory through a miracle that the Rabbis are granted the right to establish a Holiday, as in the case of Hanukkah. But the victory that the Rabbis were referring to was an ideological one. Historically at the time of Hanukkah we were attacked by the Syrians, not the Greeks. But in the prayer of, "The Days of Matityahu" it mentions victory over the Greeks, not the Syrians. The Rabbis are telling us that the Syrians identified with the physical lifestyle of the Greeks. This stress on the physical was the real threat to Judaism, not the actual harm that could come from a war.                                              

© Kol Israel Congregation