When his boss threatened to fire him, Jeremy Gross realized the true meaning of the Jewish Festival of Lights.
This week is the start of Hanukkah. Raised as a Secular Jew, I never really took Hanukkah very seriously. Hanukkah holds a strange place in the cycle of Jewish festivals in that the source material for its inception was written in texts that were de-canonized by the rabbis who redacted the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh.
תַּנַ”ךְ, or TaNaKh, is an acronym in Hebrew. Tav stands for Torah, or the five books of Moses, Nun stands for Nevi’im, or books of the Prophets, and Khet stands for Ketuvim, or miscellaneous scriptural writings, like the Psalms and Proverbs). The First and Second Books of Maccabees are the source of the Hanukkah legend, although those books were left out of the Bible. Josephus describes the incident in Antiquities of the Jews. The rabbis were uncomfortable with a holiday that could not justify its existence via Scripture. Thus, it is a minor holiday with a fair amount of ambivalence associated with it.
The incident that inspired the festival concerned a civil war between Hellenized Jews and more Orthodox Jews. In a sense, this conflict continues today with the disagreements between Secular Jews and Orthodox Jews. The Hellenized Jews had the backing of King Antiochus III, who sought to subjugate the more traditional Jews. Matisyahu, a priest of the (Second) Temple, and his sons, revolted against the Hellenized High Priest, and Matisyahu’s son, Judah, was known as Yehuda HaMakabi, or Judah the Hammer.
After winning the battle with the Hellenized Jews, Judah the Maccabee secured the Temple complex, and declared himself the High Priest. Because he considered the oil for the Temple Menorah (lamp stand) that had been supplied by the Hellenized Jews to be unclean, he had to make new lamp oil for the Temple Menorah. Because they had been fighting during the festival of Sukkot and the related holiday of Shemini Atzeret, they had to celebrate these Temple festivals belatedly, after the battle. He was only able to secure enough new oil to last one day, and yet, when he went to burn the oil in the Menorah, it burned for eight days. This miracle later generations decided to commemorate every year on the anniversary of it as the Festival of Hanukkah, or Festival of Lights.
Because this all happened after the events in the Bible, this festival is not a holy day like the holy days delineated in the Torah. Jews do not need to observe Sabbath-like restrictions on Hanukkah.
Hanukkah was a minor holiday (even more minor still than Purim, which is also not delineated in the Torah). This is the way it would have remained if it were not for the Ashkenazi migration to Europe, and the later integration of Jews into European society. European Christians converted the pagan observances of the Winter Solstice into an observance of the Birth of Christ. The Romans celebrated the Birth of the Sun on December 25th. As both the Sun and Christ correlate with the Sefer Tiferet on the Tree of Life in the Kabbalah, many solar practices easily converted to Christian practices after the Christianization of Rome. Similarly, the festivals of Saturnalia among the Romans, and Yule among the Germans, were all adopted into the celebration of Christmas. As the Christians celebrated Christmas, some were disturbed that the Jews who lived among them did not celebrate with them, and this was often a source of conflict.
As Jews were emancipated from the ghettos in Europe in the 18th century, Jewish children and Christian children began to have social intercourse with each other. Jewish children saw the observance of Christmas (and the copious gifts received) among their Christian peers, and demanded a similar observance from their parents. As Hanukkah is observed for a week after 25 Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, it often coincides with Christmas Day. It seems to be a modern custom to give children a gift for each day of Hanukkah, perhaps to appease them away from Christmas envy.
So, while Hanukkah is a minor holiday, I have Christian friends who, with all sincerity, make a point of wishing me a Happy Hanukkah with far more gusto than anyone has ever wished me a Happy Shavuot, a much more important Jewish holiday. Hanukkah’s temporal proximity to Christmas has elevated it above any reasonable stature it should possess.
As an adult Jew (and thus not likely to get eight presents), Hanukkah remained a minor holiday for me, and a fairly unremarkable one at that. That was, until a few years ago, when I finally understood its meaning.
That year, I heard an interpretation of Hanukkah that rang true for me. The interpretation regarded what the miracle of Hanukkah was. Traditionally, the miracle was that the oil lasted eight days. This interpretation went as follows: imagine that you are Judah the Maccabee. You only have enough oil for one day and yet you need to burn oil for eight days. What do you do? A pragmatic person would give up, acknowledging that there wasn’t enough oil to light the lamps. Note that at this point in the story, no miracle had occurred, and none were promised to occur. Judah instead burned the oil that he had, conserving none of it. He devoted himself to the mitzvah (commandment) wholeheartedly without hesitation, even though he was, for all practical purposes, unprepared to follow through with it. The next morning, the oil should have been exhausted, but it wasn’t. He could have unlit the lamps to conserve what remained, and yet he did not. He let them burn.
The next day, he let them burn. And the next, and the next, and the next, for eight days. While the obvious miracle is that the oil continued to burn, the miracle of faith was that Judah, without knowing how long the oil would burn, trusted that he could continue to burn the oil, withholding any hesitation or fear that he would exhaust the supply. That is the miracle of faith that led to the miracle of the oil.
I was very conscious of this interpretation that year. I was working at a company and had a bad review in October, after the role of my direct supervisor had been assigned to a new manager. It was a total shock, since my previous reviews had been nothing but positive. At the end of the review, I was told that I had four weeks to demonstrate to his satisfaction that I belonged in my role at the company, or I would be fired. At the end of four weeks, a group including my old and new supervisors and the HR director were supposed to decide whether or not I kept my job. Four weeks later, the group had failed to make a decision. Two weeks after that, I had still not received any verdict either way. And my old manager and the HR director, both of whom lived on the West Coast, were scheduled to visit my office on the East Coast for a week. The week of Hanukkah.
They arrived on a Tuesday, and I asked them what their conclusions were, and they both told me that, unofficially, I shouldn’t worry about keeping my job. I asked them when I would know officially. They told me that my new manager was incommunicado. They had tried to reach him without success for two days. The next day I came to work and demanded an answer. At 4 PM, they asked me to come into their office to talk.
They told me that my new manager wanted to fire me, and that they wanted to keep me. Discussions were at an impasse. They asked me what I thought. I told them that this was Hanukkah. I told them that in the Temple, Judah the Maccabee had burned the oil without knowing if it would last more than a day, because it was a mitzvah to burn the oil.
I had been coming to work and working hard, not knowing each day for the last two and a half weeks whether or not I’d be fired that day. That morning, a co-worker had taken an emergency support call from an important client. My colleague had asked me to jump in on the call, and in twenty minutes I had diagnosed the problem, walked them through a solution, and got them back online. At any moment during that emergency, I told them, one of you could have tapped me on the shoulder and told me I was fired. I knew that, and yet I did my job, and saved our client from a serious emergency. I told them that like the meager oil in the lamp stand, I continued to burn. They let me keep my job.
Hanukkah has been meaningful for me ever since.