The Dark Side of Chanukah – A Right-Wing, Religious-Fanatic Holiday

We all love Chanukah; the latkes, donuts, presents and of course the simple yet profound message of the flickering lights on the Menorah, but how sure are we that if the circumstances were to be repeated today that we wouldn’t side with the Greeks?

The original Hellenists, those Jews who sided with the Greeks and fought against the Maccabees, weren’t left-wing self-hating Jews. They hadn’t given up on their identity as Jews and jumped head first into the Greek Hellenistic lifestyle, they still revered Halacha and practised their Judaism. But, in the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, ‘they had assumed a flexible scale of values, and their attitude was, “this is the path I follow and in which I am comfortable, but it has its limits.”’ They were living with the times and were being sensible and pragmatic; in essence they were not much different from the majority of middle of the road Jews in the 21stcentury.

The Maccabees on the other hand, were the right-wing zealous frummies; they refused to bend at all to society and situational sensibilities. They picked a fight with the ruling class and set themselves at odds with their fellow co-religionists. Instead of seeking a compromise they squared up to the Greeks and were forced to then fight a war that according to all metrics they should have lost. Without the direct intervention of G-d’s miracles, the Maccabees were doomed to total extinction. There would have been no need for the oil to miraculously last eight days as there would have been no Jews to light the Menorah at all.

Apply those metrics now and ask yourself which side of the divide you would be on?

Chanukah is a pleasant holiday filled with many delights and not many religious duties, but in essence it is a religious-zealous holiday. And that is why it has survived and is beloved by all. For the direct result of that war, simply put, was the survival of Judaism. Had the Maccabees not fought, had they not stood up for their essential beliefs, then it is logical to assume that we would have gone the way of the other religions of that era and local. We would have assimilated to the point where we would have lost our unique identity and we would have simply disappeared into the pages of history as a relic of the past.

At our core we are all zealots, for we all treasure the pure essence of the Jew that is found inside of us. We are not the so-called ‘sensible Jews’, who are simply retaining the habits of our ancestors, which will by nature be eradicated as time, convenience,  modern inventions and reality get in the way. Our Judaism is not a fashion statement that will have its time and then be replaced. It is the essence of who we are, it is our exclusivity, and when push comes to shove it is something that we are willing to give our lives up for.

If you think I am incorrect then just open our history books to any era in our 3,000 year journey.

The question we need to ask ourselves now is, at what point do I stand up? What custom is worth fighting over? What aspect of my Judaism is the one that will awaken within me the essence of my Judaism?

To paraphrase: first they came for the Shtreimels, but I did not speak up for I didn’t wear one. Then they came for the Sheitels, but I did not speak up for I didn’t wear one. Then they came for the Jewish schools, but I didn’t speak up for my children were being given a broad education. Then they came for Shechita, but I didn’t speak up for I was ok with ‘Kosher style’. Then they came for me, the sensible and compliant Jew, but there was no one left to speak up.

Shabbat v. Chanukah

Shabbat Miketz

Shabbat Chanukah 5777

It’s the 2nd longest Sedra in the entire Torah. We jump from under 6,000 letters last week, to nearly 8,000 this week, and that’s without the 2nd Sefer for Chanukah.


Yup, it’s a long one.


So let’s look instead at a comment made this week by Chief Rabbi Sacks.


Discussing an interesting law about Shabbat v. Chanukah, he notes a ruling that if on Friday-Chanukah one only has a single candle, then the Shabbat light overrides the Chanukah Menorah.


This, he says, is because the importance of the family home and peace amongst the family, represented and promoted by the Shabbat candles, trumps the light of the military victory of Chanukah. Even though Chanukah was a greater miracle, even though without it we would have no Shabbat or Jewish Home at all, nevertheless the Shalom Bayis is more important.


I really love that idea. One of the quirks of our calendar, is that the 5th Candle of Chanukah can never be on a Friday night. The first time that the lit candles outnumber the unlit ones can never be on a Shabbat, nevertheless we will always have the Shabbat candles. Regardless of what night Chanukah it is, regardless of where we are on the scale of Chanukah candles, we will still be kindling the Shabbat candles.


This year, the last three days of Chanukah really emphasise our moral and religious victory over the Syrian-Greeks, {yes, it was the Seleucid branch of the Greek Empire, based in modern day Syria, who oppressed and tried to annihilate the Jews – some things never change!).


The 6th Candle is on Rosh Chodesh which they tried to ban, attempting to disrupt the cycle of family life and festivals.


The 7th Candle is on Shabbat which they also tried to ban, attempting to remove the vital quality of Shabbat and Shalom Bayis.


The 8th Candle always connects to the Mitzvah of Bris Milah which was also the subject of a Seleucid ban attempting to deny the connection between the Jewish body and Hashem.


Yet here we are, still celebrating Rosh Chodesh and our calendar. Still lighting the Shabbat candles and bringing peace to the world. And here we are, still performing the Bris Milah and cementing our Covenant with the Almighty, understanding that our connection with Him is not just theological and for the soul, but is practical and for our physical body and self as well.


Chanukah is more than latkes and donuts, it’s even more that the lights themselves; it’s about our connection, our commitment and our responsibility.


Let’s hope and pray that these candles can truly bring some much needed light and morality in a world that is currently sadly lacking both.


Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom, a Gut Chodesh and a Lichtiker Chanukah,

Rabbi Dovid