Chanukah is not a Jewish version of Christmas and should not be treated as such.
Yet our oh-so-minor festival has become more important than some of our major ones. It also has become a very expensive eight days, as parents and grandparents outdo themselves to fulfill children’s wish lists of dream gifts.
That Chanukah seeks to emulate the popular culture rather than stick to its religious roots is not a surprise. Chanukah has no religious roots. That it exists at all testifies to its popularity with the people and to the ability of the sages of blessed memory to make the best of a bad situation. (To them, anything that extolled the Hasmoneans as heroes probably was a bad situation.)
The festival is not mentioned anywhere in the Tanach (the Bible), even though there were at least two books available for inclusion – First and Second Maccabees. There is not even a debate recorded over whether to include either or both books, as there was, say, for the Song of Songs or the Book of Esther.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day There also is virtually nothing about the festival in the Mishnah, which is primarily the product of the sages of the First and Second Centuries C.E. The four references that do exist are in passing, and only exist as parts of lists that include other observances. Considering that the Mishnah in its present version was not edited until around 200 C.E., by which time Chanukah was an established minor festival, the paucity of references to it only highlights its problematic origin.
The Babylonian Talmud, which essentially is a product of sages from 200 to 600 C.E., has more to say about Chanukah, but little of what it says goes beyond describing its rituals.
Contrast this to Purim, which has its own biblical book (Esther) and its own talmudic tractate (Megillah). The sages also went to considerable lengths to increase the stature of Purim’s male hero, Mordechai, creating a legend that made him one of the great religious leaders of his day and also one of its greatest scholars. They made no similar effort to add luster to any of the Hasmoneans.
There are several valid reasons why Chanukah was so ill thought of, especially by the mishnaic sages. Not the least of its problems was this: In many ways, Chanukah (or its Hasmonean heroes, popular legends notwithstanding) borrowed from the very Hellenistic culture whose defeat the festival is supposed to symbolize.
This is an outright violation of Jewish law, starting with the Torah. (See Leviticus 18:3 and Leviticus 20:23 especially.) The reason, according to Deuteronomy 12:30, is “that you not be snared by following them.” Not heeding this law, we are told, is one of the reasons God caused the First Temple to fall and the people to be exiled (see Ezekiel 11:12).
Torah law led to a class of rules and regulations usually referred to as “chukat ha’goyim,” or laws and customs of the nations (meaning every nation but our own). The Talmud’s designation is darchei ha’emori, the way of the Amorites, in which the Amorites stand in for the nations. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 67a and b for some interesting examples, including a ban on husbands and wives exchanging names.) In brief, banned are any “chukat goyim” that are idolatrous in nature or are based on superstition, provided that the superstition is rooted in pagan belief. (Warding off the evil spirits among the gods is apparently behind the spousal name-switching, which is why that is no longer included in the prohibition.)
Of course, if a law or custom has nothing to do with religious ritual or worship, then most authorities – but not all – have no problem with our mimicking the behavior. The same holds true for superstitions that have no religious underpinnings.
Let us, then, look at the Chanukah-as-Christmas conundrum. On the one hand, we have a minor Jewish festival that involves only one ritual – the lighting of an eight-branched menorah, or chanukiah, preferably in front of one’s door or, at least, in a window that can be seen by the neighbors. On the other, we have one of the two major observances of Christianity, this one involving the birth of the titular founder of the religions that fall under that rubric.
There is no comparison in terms of significance.
Among the traditions of Christmas is hanging wreaths on doors and in windows (many Jews now hang cut-outs of chanukiot in theirs); decorating homes with all kinds of things, including strings of letters that spell “Merry Christmas” (many Jews now decorate their homes with cut-outs of dreidels and strings of letters that spell out “Happy Chanukah”); and Christmas lights (for which we now have “Chanukah lights,” usually strung in a Star of David pattern).
Christmas is a religious holiday (although it is easy to miss that amid all the commercialism surrounding its observance) and the customs and traditions of Christmas are meant to enhance its sacred nature. That makes them religious customs and traditions and, therefore, covered by the “chukat goyim” prohibition.
In the specific case of the Christmas lights, one of three possibilities is the likeliest for the origin of the custom:
1. Decorating homes with candles and greenery were features of the very pagan winter solstice festival dedicated to Saturn that later morphed into Christmas;
2. The lights are meant to memorialize the “star of Bethlehem” that supposedly foretold the event celebrated at Christmas; and,
3. Santa needs the lights to find the houses on his gift-giving journey.
Celebrating Chanukah this way, then, clearly violates the principle of “chukat goyim.”
On the other hand, the Tosefta states that it is permissible to wish a non-Jew a happy holiday, “for the sake of peace.” (See its commentary to Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3.)
Despite its problematic origins and because of the ability of the sages to adapt, Chanukah now has a Jewishly religious purpose: It stands for the triumph of faith in God over the forces of paganism, with God (not the Hasmoneans) as the ultimate author of the victory, as indeed He was.
Let us keep Chanukah a Jewish festival by observing it – rather than turning it into something else – and may its promise of ultimate redemption be fulfilled speedily and in our days.