At nightfall Sunday (Dec. 6), Jews everywhere will begin the eight-day observance of Hanukkah. What’s not to love about a happy, home-based festivity involving fried food? According to the last National Jewish Population Survey, in 2001, 72 percent of Jews in the United States light Hanukkah candles. Yet a lot is commonly misunderstood about the holiday. Let’s consider some of the biggest misconceptions.
▪ 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.
But as any rabbi would be quick to explain, Hanukkah is categorized as a minor festival whose only real decree is to light candles for eight nights.
▪ 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 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.
But the idea that theirs was a fight for religious freedom is a myth. 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 Maccabees opposed their Hellenized counterparts, and their revolt really began as a bitter internal fight between religious fundamentalists and reformers.
▪ 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.
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.
▪ 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.
As scholars have long noted, there’s no reference to the miracle in early sources based on firsthand accounts.
The 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 to diaspora rabbis, who came to codify the Babylonian Talmud. In the middle of the Talmudic tractate discussing the proper way to light candles on the Sabbath 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.
But latkes originated in Eastern Europe, not ancient Israel. Although they are certainly a traditional holiday food, they are by no means the traditional holiday food. Greek Jews eat fried fish. The Cochin Jews of India enjoy neyyappam, a kind of fried sweet cake. Syrian and Lebanese Jews celebrate with atayef, deep-fried cheese-filled pancakes, while Sephardic Jews have traditionally feasted on ojaldre, an ancient Spanish form of puff pastry also stuffed with cheese.
Special to The Washington Post