The other day I was being escorted to my car with a cart filled with bags of groceries, when the well meaning young man asked me if I had anything fun planned for the evening. Take note Northeners – here in the South, grocery clerks don’t even ask if you might need help out to your car. They just commandeer it.
Instead of fluffing him off, I said, “Yes, it’s the first night of Chanukka, do you even know what that is?” He smiled and said that he did, something about oil, right?
Leave it to my brother Eric to send me the real origin story of of this minor level Jewish Holiday that has scant hope of ever living up to Christmas.
A camel walks into a bar. I know, y’all thought it has something to do with a grand fight, the Maccabee brothers take on the holy Roman Empire. But according to this, the first time Chanukka is ever mentioned is in a Jewish law text, tort law no less. Back then, the rabbis were the chief judges and executioners of the land. And they made a distinction about fire damage claims in this Mishna:
If a camel knocks over a lamp, causing a fire, the rabbis say the camel driver is responsible if the lamp is indoors; but if the lamp is outside a shop, the shopkeeper is liable. Rabbi Jehudah provides an exception to this rule: The shopkeeper isn’t liable if the lamp is a “Hanukkah lamp.”
Some 250 years after the Maccabean Revolt, the rabbis explain why the menorah is lit, and it has more to do with a rededication of the Second Temple. Josephus first called the festival “Lights.” But in fact, like all traditions, it most likely originated with a newly monotheistic people trying to accommodate pagan rituals; “The more likely explanation is that Jewish households adopted the practice from pagan ritual, following which the authorities gave the practice a “Jewish explanation” after the fact. The Zoroastrians of Persia for instance marked the Winter Solstice with a festival of fire, called Chaharshanbe Suri, which predated Hanukkah and fell at about the same time of year.”
So thank you Iran! And that explains why we have so many damn lights all over everything at Christmas! And thank you Rabbis, for wanting to emphasize a victory for our people, when so many times we suffered defeats like Masada.
The Groom said last night, “I Like Chanukka!” After all, you get to eat anything fried in oil right! And the Bride said guess what, “We’ve got six more nights to go!” But of course I had to remind that grocery clerk of the Adam Sandler movie, and the eight “crazy” nights, when he thought it lasted “…like a month or something.”