Amidst the lights and music of Chanukah comes the lights of Chanukah. It’s a festival – not a holiday, and, like many Jewish celebrations it involves near annihilation and food.
Sunday, a friend asked about the meaning of ‘gelt’ as we walked chomping on chocolate gelt coins. Midway through making up answers, I came face to face with the fact: after lighting hundreds of Chanukah candles, spinning countless dreidels, and, eating twice my weight in potato latkes and soufganiot (doughnuts) over more than half century of celebrating: I DON’T KNOW!
Fortunately, I had picked up a brochure:
In fact, while reading Chabad’s Lubavitch Youth Org’s www.lubavitchyouth.org short brochure I realized not only do I NOT
understand the meaning of ‘gelt’, I don’t fully understand the whole festival.
Ultimately, Chanukah, is about the triumph of freedom over oppression, of spirit over matter, of light over darkness.
Our sages said, “A little light expels a lot of darkness.”
Notable as the longest night of the year is days away.
Some of what I needed to learn:
313 B.C.E.: Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem. The Jews lived under Greek ‘rule’ until they were forced to worship statues of Zeus. Then, enough was enough: In 140 B.C.E., the Jews fought a war over religious freedom led by the Maccabees, an acronym for ‘Who is like You among the powerful, O L-ord?’
Battles were fought and miraculous victories led to chasing the Greeks out of Jerusalem. But the Greeks had desecrated the Holy Temple and there wasn’t any undefiled oil to keep the special light above the Ark where the Torah’s are kept lit. It would take 7 days round trip to get undefiled oil. Ah, the days before Fed-Ex!
Miraculously, a pure, sealed bottle of oil was found beneath the floor. A bottle to last a day, miraculously lasted for eight.
Miracle or luck? A question for another day.
Chanukah celebrates this miracle with the ritual of lighting menorah’s: special candlesticks allowing candles to be lit for each of the miraculous eight nights,
Eating oil laden food like potato pancakes fried in oil
Giving ‘gelt’ or charity. Most often in the form of foil wrapped chocolate, though as kids it’s much sweeter to get a gift each night. I become my niece’s least favorite aunt by giving donations in their name!
Playing Dreidel, spinning a four-sided top – for money – and praying for a miracle to take the pot. Here’s the deal with dreidels: When the Greek
Antiochus forbade Torah study, Jews studied secretly in caves. When an officer approached, they would hide their books and pretend to play with tops. The dreidel’s four sides have a Hebrew letter imprinted on each side: Nun, Gimmel, Hay, and Shin, standing for the Hebrew:
‘Ness Gadol Haya Sham’:
‘A great miracle happened here’
FYI: Give the top a twirl and when the dreidel stops spinning, if it lands on the Gimmel it means you win everything. Landing on the Shin will diminish your lot by 2 M-n-M’s.
Today, Wednesday, the fifth night, is the most special: five lit candles out of eight signifies more light than darkness.
Watching the candles burn on my menorah, I’m acknowledging struggles and darkness, taking in the light . Menorah’s have been lit and dreidels have spun through far worse than my measly problems, I know. Still, it’s reassuring.
My Lubavitcher Youth www.LubavitchYouth.org brochure says it better than I ever could:
Let us pray that the message of the Chanukah lights will illuminate the everyday life of everyone personally and of the society at large, for a brighter life in every respect, both materially and spiritually.
I’ll drink (some hot chocolate) to that!
What’s your favorite holiday ritual?
What have you learned about it lately that blew your socks off?