At nightfall Sunday, Jews everywhere will begin the eight-day observance of Hanukkah by lighting candles, singing songs, showering their children with gifts and stuffing themselves with potato latkes. What’s not to love about a happy, home-based festivity involving fried food? It’s no wonder that Hanukkah is the most widely celebrated holiday among American Jews: According to the last National Jewish Population Survey, in 2001, 72 percent of Jews in the United States light Hanukkah candles — more than partake of any other Jewish rite, including attending a Passover seder or fasting on Yom Kippur. Yet a lot is commonly misunderstood about the holiday’s significance, both now and historically. Let’s consider some of the biggest misconceptions about the festival of lights.
1. Hanukkah is an important Jewish holiday.
It’s easy to get the impression that Hanukkah is a marquee event of the Jewish year, falling as it coincidentally does right around the time of that other blockbuster December occasion and likewise seeming to revolve around presents, parties and recollections of a miracle long ago. The sense of Hanukkah’s importance is further stoked by lively decorations, beautiful menorahs, delectable feasts and even, nowadays, kitschy sweaters and tongue-in-cheek competitions.
But as any rabbi would be quick to explain, Hanukkah is one of the least important occasions on the Hebrew calendar. Unlike major holidays such as Passover, Sukkot and the weekly Sabbath — all of which include extensive ritual requirements as well as prohibitions against work — Hanukkah is categorized as a minor festival whose only real decree is to light candles for eight nights. Everything else is custom or adaptation.
That’s not to say, however, that all the hubbub around Hanukkah is accidental. Its elevation to its current status in the United States goes back to the 19th century, when rabbis concerned about Jewish children feeling envious of their Christian neighbors realized that Hanukkah could let kids indulge in a joyous occasion around the same time of year. As Jewish historian Dianne Ashton recounts in her book “Hanukkah in America,” the holiday’s “timing in the midst of the Christmas season offered a way [for people] to perform their Jewish commitment through the holiday’s rite and, for a moment, to resolve the ambiguity of being an American Jew.”
2. Hanukkah celebrates a fight for religious freedom.
The story of Hanukkah commemorates events in the 2nd century B.C., when the Syrian king Antiochus, whose Greek-influenced Seleucid empire ruled over ancient Judea, issued decrees outlawing traditional Jewish practices, which provoked the uprising of a family of country priests called the Maccabees. They ultimately triumphed, regained control of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it according to their beliefs. As Rabbi Joshua Sherwin expounded at the White House Hanukkah party in 2013, the “true meaning” of the holiday is to celebrate “strengthening religious freedom in our days, just as the Maccabees did in ancient ones.”
But the idea that theirs was a fight for religious freedom is a myth, as is the notion that their revolt was exclusively against their Gentile oppressors. At the time, many Jews readily welcomed aspects of the dominant Greek culture, with its emphasis on reason, wisdom and art. These Hellenistic Jews advocated for the reformation of their own primitive belief system according to Greek values — the modernization of a faith founded in the Bronze Age. The Maccabees opposed their Hellenized counterparts, and according to some scholars, their revolt really began as a bitter internal fight between religious fundamentalists and reformers.
“The Maccabees were fighting for the ability to observe their own laws and the ability to coerce other Jews to observe their laws,” says Albert Baumgarten, an emeritus professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. “It meant a very strong fight against the Hellenistic Jews and the establishment of what we would today call a theocratic state.” Some contemporary commentators have even deigned to call the Maccabees fanatics and zealots.
3. The Jews’ victory in the Hanukkah story halted assimilation.
Today, the Maccabees are extolled for having put a hard stop, after their recapture of Jerusalem in 164 B.C., to Hellenism’s threat to swallow traditional Judaism. “Hanukkah celebrates the rescue of Judaism itself from the clutches of cultural assimilation,” Ron Wolfson, an education professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, writes in “Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration,” nodding to why this story speaks so deeply to modern diaspora Jews. “In our own day,” he writes, “living in a completely open society, we too must battle the forces of cultural assimilation to retain our Jewish identities.”
But as rulers who subsequently established the Hasmonean dynasty, these rebels quickly realized that their survival involved playing the game of regional politics — and the way to do that was by none other than adopting Hellenism. “It was a kind of necessity,” Baumgarten says. “The Seleucid dynasty to which Antiochus and his successors belonged was split between two rival families that were fighting each other over generations, and the Maccabees had to play one branch off each other. If you backed the wrong horse in this ongoing civil war, you could end up losing your status and your head. . . . So although the Maccabees started as opponents of Hellenism, they soon become among its most enthusiastic admirers and adopters.”
This meant, for instance, aping Greek models of government and negotiation, and establishing an assembly to vote a ruler into power — a practice with no precedent in Jewish tradition. Their realpolitik also helped them learn to “negotiate the different tensions between being part of the Jewish world and the larger world,” Baumgarten says, which was critical to Jewish survival.
4. The oil burned for eight days and eight nights.
The ritual lighting of Hanukkah candles is traced to what’s known as the miracle of the oil: After the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple, the story goes, they found a small amount of oil permissible for lighting the sacred sanctuary lamp — enough for just one day. Miraculously, it lasted eight. Jews thus light candles on eight successive nights to recall this great miracle.
Yet whether the miracle really happened is questionable, and not just because of the empirically proven limits of combustible liquid. As scholars have long noted, there’s no reference to the miracle in early sources based on firsthand accounts, including the first book of Maccabees, an insider history written to glorify the new dynasty and its achievements, nor the second book of Maccabees, also a historical account written close to the time of the revolt, although from the diaspora.
The miraculous-oil story seems to be a rabbinic invention transmitted hundreds of years after it allegedly occurred. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Jews were expelled, and religious authority was transferred from Temple priests to diaspora rabbis, who came to codify the Babylonian Talmud as a central text of Jewish law, ethics and customs. In the middle of the Talmudic tractate discussing the proper way to light candles on the Sabbath, as a footnote that seems almost an afterthought, the rabbis included a discussion of Hanukkah candle-lighting along with a telling of the miracle of the oil. It’s this written account that made the story last.
5. Latkes are the traditional Hanukkah food.
Latkes, or potato pancakes, are the much-salivated-over centerpiece of most Hanukkah celebrations in America. Consisting of grated potatoes mixed with matzo meal and eggs, and fried in oil to a golden crisp, they are the holiday’s iconic food, fueling vociferous debates about which topping is superior — sour cream or applesauce — and enabling the endless creativity of modern cooks, who include ingredients their ancestors probably never heard of, from Swiss chard to zucchini, from chipotle to feta cheese and artichokes.
But latkes originated in Eastern Europe, not ancient Israel. And they were first made with curd cheese rather than potatoes, Gil Marks writes in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.” Although they are certainly a traditional holiday food, they are by no means the traditional holiday food. For centuries, as Marks details, Jewish communities around the world have celebrated with other delicacies that acknowledge the role of oil in the Hanukkah story. Greek Jews eat fried fish with ajada, an adaptation of an ancient Mediterranean sauce akin to garlic mayonnaise; they also serve fried apple rings and apple fritters. The Cochin Jews of India enjoy neyyappam, a kind of fried sweet cake containing semolina, almonds, cashews, dates, apricots and cardamom, as well as bonda, fried potato fritters coated in chickpea flour and served with chutney. Syrian and Lebanese Jews celebrate with atayef, cheese-filled pancakes deep-fried and topped with sugary syrup or thick cream, while Sephardic Jews have traditionally feasted on ojaldre, an ancient Spanish form of puff pastry also stuffed with cheese. The Jews of Italy, meanwhile, nibble on frittelle di Chanukah, yeast fritters flavored with anise.