Home » Blog » #2: The Candle of Confusion………………. (Over How Much to Celebrate Chanukah)

#2: The Candle of Confusion………………. (Over How Much to Celebrate Chanukah)

Chanukah Candle #2. Shtayeem, dos, du, shay-nee, ʼiṯnān (Arabic), dua (Indonesian), ʻe-lua (Hawaiian, for the new President-elect), twai (Gothic), yerkou (Armenian), two. Happy Second Night of Chanukah.

Blog Tzedakah:
The five of you who left comments yesterday ensured that collectively, we donated $15 of my money to the Adopt a Child Abuse Caseworker (ACAC) program that helps foster children. Read more about that program here. If you want, donate yourself there.

Now leave a comment (below) today and I make a tzedakah donation to the Brandon Kaplan Special Needs program, which ensures that kids with special needs and their families receive the support they need within the Jewish community. Learn more about the program here and here. If you want, donate yourself there. Remember, though, for every comment made today, I’ll make a tzedakah donation to help special needs kids seeking a brighter future. So just make a comment below.

Chanukah Blog Thots:

My colleague Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein, Spiritual Life Coach, wrote words that speaks to everyone who struggles to find direction celebrating Chanukah during the Christmas season. His conclusions are wonderful.

This time of year is one of major conflict for me. I don’t like having to defend Jewish tradition. I don’t like having to say that Hanukkah is not a big deal holiday and that we have to resist the temptation of our society’s to turn it into the Jewish American Christmas. This has always been my least favorite time of the year. I’m on the defensive no matter what I say. If I say it’s ok to celebrate the secular festival of American consumerism, I am putting down Christmas. If I say that it’s not very Jewish to celebrate the season with all the gifts and decorations of Christmas, I’m taking away all the fun of the party.

But I heard a story a while ago that I find really useful for framing my discomfort and the resolution of it. It took a couple of years to come to terms with the story. Here’s how it goes:

This old guy is about to die. He is very uncomfortable about his impending death, worried about what will happen to the Jewish people. He goes to his rabbi. He complains bitterly of his worry and his need to hang on to life until or unless he can see that the future of the Jewish people is secure. In his magical wisdom, the rabbi brings him to the eighth year of the second Christian millennium, to the last month, and here he sees the Jewish people making a huge deal out of Hanukkah, an admittedly minor, insignificant holiday. He sees children getting gifts every day, celebrating with great joy this very minor holiday. He hears incredibly insipid songs dedicated to spinning tops and potato pancakes, can’t figure out their meaning, but at least he recognizes the happiness and warmth of the songs. Finally, after taking in this spectacle, he says to the rabbi, “If this is how they celebrate such a little holiday like Hanukkah, I can rest assured. Think how they must be observing the important holidays, like Sukkot and Shavuot, or even Shabbat!”

Many other rabbis who tell this story go on to lament what they see as the irony of this story – that we have lost sight of our authentic Jewish holidays and have focused a lot on a minor holiday. I differ with them here, and I base that difference on the very story of Hanukkah. Hanukkah celebrates a military victory that has little or no spiritual or religious value. The historical accounts of Hanukkah do not include the story with the cruse of oil lasting for 8 days. That story was attached to it much later, in Talmudic times, around 400 years after the battle was won but the war was lost. In other words, our ancestors saw miracles in the story in which G!d was not at all Self-evident, attributing the military victory to G!d. They then further added G!d into the Hanukkah story, making it a spiritual event, with the device of the “miracle” of the oil.

G!d doesn’t appear in burning bushes, in splitting seas or earthquakes, thunder or lightning in the Hanukkah story. In fact, G!d isn’t even mentioned much. The Maccabees are praised for their bravery in winning the battle, and there is a sense of awe attached to the legend of the oil, but I don’t remember anyone saying it was G!d’s direct hand that kept the oil burning for the 8 days, just a very strange experience, a miracle. That G!d doesn’t appear in the story, doesn’t mean that G!d is not there, just that it’s our job to understand that G!d can be in the little things, in the unbelievable victory of the small over the mighty, in legends of rededication that we tell ourselves in order to sense the closeness of G!d in the less than spectacular. The rabbis turned to the legend of the oil when memory of the military victory was fading, when they were oppressed, lost, down and out, and needed to find G!d, to find miracles, to find holiness in what they had left.

That’s a Hanukkah lesson I am comfortable with: that G!d is present to us, in the miracles of our daily lives, if we see G!d in the smaller, non-spectacular stories of our own lives and our times. Recognizing when we need to turn to G!d, and finding the Holy One right there with us, as we struggle with our own battles and our own losses. Hanukkah is a way of rededicating ourselves to seeing the light of G!d where G!d’s Presence may be most needed, most welcome, most missed. Hanukkah is a reminder that G!d’s light in our own lives is the miracle, and it lasts way more than 8 days!

So, in thinking about it, I’m not all that disturbed by that which other rabbis might find lamentable – that in our society we have elevated a minor holiday into major proportions. It means we’re still a dynamic religion, still growing, developing and changing. It means that the Judaism we celebrate today continues to have creative energy. May we learn, as our ancestors did, to infuse that creative energy with G!d’s Holy Presence, making more obvious to us the miracles of G!d in our own lives each and every day. May the candles we light this Hanukkah remind us that the light from G!d will never diminish, and may we enjoy the glow way after Hanukkah is over.

Chanukah Resources: Concerned about the non-historical origin of the eight days of oil story? Read here. Need Chanukah resources: songsheets, candle blessing instructions, a copy of the story? Go here.

Happy Chanukah! (Check back tomorrow to discover which is the correct way to spell the holiday’s name: Chanukah, Hanukkah, Hanuka, Hanukka or…)


  1. Marcy C. says:

    Rabbi…Loved reading this post. It speaks to many of my feelings about this holiday – especially with kids. I was raised with many gifts at Hanukkah, but (as you know) also with parents who did Tzedakah year-round. This is what is in my heart and what I hope to pass on to my children (along with Wii games and iTunes!)

  2. The gift giving can be overwhelming. We want to do it, and I think as part of a family celebration it is fine, but when it becomes only about that, not only does the holiday lose meaning, but so do the gifts… each gift outshines the ones from the previous night… and too many get lost in the shuffle. The road to Toys R Us is paved with good intentions! The idea of charity one night, and family time one night, with no gifts, is a great idea. Thanks, Rabbi! Any holiday should be about family coming together and celebrating according to your own family tradition. No need to keep up with the Jones’ or the Steinbergs! Be true to your family and the real meaning behind any holiday. And make new traditions that further mankind and strengthen your family bonds. I always love the notion behind most Jewish holidays… they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!

  3. Holly says:

    For me Chanukah is a time to express our idenity ng as Jews. We aren’t bending to the majority, yet creating our own holiday and remembering our own history. It is a time to celebrate with family and friends, and to reach out to non-Jews with joy that their holiday as well as our celebrates the warmth of light in the middle of the winter. We can watch non-Jews worship celebrate Christmas with all of pagentry and reconize our smaller holiday just the same.

    We take time during Chanukah to read Jewish stories, open Jewish themed gifts, give tzedukah as well as share our gratitude that we are Jews who have and will continue to experience God’s miracles. I don’t have to complete with Christmas, but can share and enjoy Chanukah just the same.

  4. Marsi Gore says:

    Chanukah is presented as a purely joy-filled holiday. It appeals to all ages.It’s up to each individual family how to handle the issue of symbolism versus commercialism.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Caryl, Alyssa, and michael kaplan are up in mammoth celebrating chanukah together Jordan and Gary are celebrating the festival of lights in the company of Oomah and Poppop, also nana. this season our family has been doing lots of mitzvot including purchashing supplies and making hundreds off goody bags to give to the poor children downtown, assisting at operation school bell with poor kids, and visiting a childrens hospital. Thanks Rabi for your inspiration this holiday season. Happy Chanukah.

  6. Diane Smith says:

    It’s been lovely celebrating Chanukah in our interfaith household. Matthew has such a unique way of telling the Chanukah story. His program had a wonderful Tzdakah experience last week. They assembled care packages and distributed them to the homeless people on the streets of Ventura. And at this time of year, as I do always, I keep my sweet Andrew in my heart. It is in that spirit I am donating in his name.

  7. Rick Young says:

    Rabbi Paul,

    Thank you for your insightful view on Hannukah! Growing up with Christmas traditions, I was disillusioned very early on with the commercialism of the holiday. I don’t like to see my Jewish community attempt to emulate that commercialism for “the sake of the kids”. As always, I find myself in admiration of our religious leadership to break the mold and call a spade a spade, and recognize the true miracles that we live with every day: the love of our family, friends, and community, and the effort to support each other whenever and wherever possible. In today’s world, THAT is the miracle that we can support every day, not just at the end of the calendar year. May we all appreciate each other, and recognize what is truly valuable in our lives.

  8. David Eshaghpour says:

    I believe that the dreidel is a great metaphor for hectic lives (both secular and religious)that we live in the post-modern era. We are constantly spinning from one activity, meeting, commitment to another and suddenly we drop and reveal a certain facade. At these drops or pauses we remember the miracles that happened “there” and how they occur here in the here and now of our lives. The miracle of birth, growth, love and even death. At this hectic moment in time that often dwells on consumption, greed, joy and need, may we dedicate ourselves to freedom from our post-modern oppressors: the iPhone, the “crackberry”, the tube, and the computer/internet. Like Matatyahu and his children may we stand up to outside influences inpinging on our psychic health and enjoy the light, the warmth, and the love that we seek to share with our family and friends this holiday season.

    Happy Birthday greetings to our Shamash, Rabbi Paul, whose wisdom, guidance and vision helps us realize our better natures….

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