From a reader:
Is it okay for us to observe Hanukkah in anyway?
It think it depends on what you mean by “observe”. We can sure watch with respect what Jews do at this time of year. After all, the Jewish festivals are our heritage as well. They have significance for Christians because they concern the history of our salvation.
I don’t see anything wrong with making use of some Jewish customs, especially so as to impress on children the fact that Christianity and Judaism are deeply interconnected. But there must always be the clear instruction that the New Covenant in Christ fulfills and surpasses the Old Covenant and all its observances just as the real thing surpasses its images or shadows.
Whatever you might do, do with respect and without substituting their customs for our own beautiful practices.
Also, I fully endorse taking advantage of some of the traditional foods which the Jews prepare at this time! Have at.
For those of you who might not know much about Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, let’s have a review.
This year, Hanukkah starts today, 1 December. Sometimes it is written with a “Ch”. There will be variant spellings depending on who is doing the writing. That first letter in the Hebrew word חנוכה involves a glottal fricative, which can be hard for English speakers.
Hanukkah commemorates the reclaiming of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt during the 2nd c. B.C. The Temple had been violated by the invaders of the Seleucid Empire. When the Jews under the Maccabees rededicated the Temple, they found just enough olive oil to light the Temple’s flame for only one day. It burned for eight days, the length of time needed to prepare new oil for the Temple’s flame. The events are in Maccabees 1 and 2.
On the first night of Hanukkah, when the first light is kindled, this is the prayer which is recited or sung:
1. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light.
2. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.
3. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.
Some Jews will also sing psalms and other hymns, presents are exchanged and children are encouraged also to perform works of charity.
As you might guess, there are special foods for Hanukkah.
Since the holiday concerns what happened with oil, some of them are fried. You might be able to find latkes, fritters and doughnuts in your stores these days.
And because of the story of Judith and Holofernes there may be some cheese or other milk products involved. Judith fed Holofernes salty cheese in order to make him very thirsty, thus provoking him to drink lots of wine. The wine went to his head. Judith thereafter removed said head from said Holofernes’ neck. The connection: Judith is thought to have been connected to the Maccabees; her intervention parallels that of the Maccabees with the miracle of the oil, and thus she is also a figure revered at Hanukkah.
There are some great paintings of the scene of Judith sawing away at poor old Holofernes. One of my favorites is the version by Artemisia. She has a look of real satisfaction on her face as she hacks away. I have included here, however, a less common depiction of the meal wherein Judith is setting Holofernes up for his demise with the meal of cheese and wine. It is by Cranach the Elder. A few other versions here. But I digress.
Children also play with the famous little top called a “dreidel”. The top, which sometimes the children make from clay (there is a famous song about that which I learned from a childhood friend), is decorated with the letters. Nun (נ), Gimel (ג), Hey (ה) and Shin (ש), and acronym for “A great miracle happened there”. Some driedels from the Holy Land have the last letter as Pe (פ) to make the acronym say “here” instead of “there”. To play, you spin the top and, depending on the letter that turns up, you get a little prize or perhaps nothing. There are variations, as you can imagine.
There are all sorts of symbolic meanings for every part of the dreidel, which developed over time, much in the same way that we developed symbolic meanings for all our vestments and gestures during Holy Mass, just to put a Catholic spin on it.
John 10:22, by the way, mentions Hanukkah. The Lord was in Jerusalem for the observance of the festival.
Ἐγένετο δὲ τὰ ἐγκαίνια ἐν τοῖς Ἱεροσολύμοις καὶ χειμὼν ἦν.