The Hanukkah story is not in the Torah. There is no Hanukkah Haggadah or Seder. And really, the story was mainly an oral tradition for hundreds of years before it made it to print (in the Gemara around 500 C.E., and even then, it was only a few sentences).
It was elevated in status somewhat around 700 C.E. when the Haneirot Halalu was written by rabbinic scholars. Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration, notes that the words “miracles,” “wonders,” and “deliverance” are added to the Hanukkah tale in the Haneirot Halalu, and this language likens it to the Exodus story:
“Then the Lord took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, with awesome power, with signs and with wonders.” (Deuteronomy 26:8)
Here is the English translation of the Haneirot Halalu:
These lights we kindle (to recall)
the miracles and the wonders and the deliverance and the victories (battles)
that our ancestors accomplished
in those days at this season through the hands of Your Holy Priests.
And throughout all eight days of Hanukkah
these lights are sanctified, and we may not use them
except to look upon them, in order to thank and praise Your great name
for Your miracles and for Your wonders and for Your deliverance.
-Talmud Soferim 20:6
We sing (or recite) this after the candles are lit, and we are, in the process, reminded that these candles are holy and their light is only to be used to remember the events of Hanukkah and not as a practical source of light.
To this day, Hanukkah is still considered a minor holiday (as opposed to the major holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and of course, Shabbat); however, in the last few decades, it has gained importance in part due to its proximity to Christmas. I’d like to think, however, that Hanukkah is a big deal because the lessons we can learn from this story continue to be relevant today. Indeed, they may be more relevant than ever before.
Before the time the central Hanukkah story took place, Greek culture, known as Hellenism, was becoming very popular, in large part due to Alexander the Great (from Macedonia in Greece) who wanted to spread Hellenism and conquer the world. There were some Jews at this time who were attracted to Hellenism and started to assimilate into mainstream Greek culture, and, in the process, lessen their Jewish practices. There were other Jews who maintained Judaism and devoted their time to studying Torah and continuing Jewish traditions.
In 168 B.C.E., after the Syrian King Antiochus Epipanes IV declared that Jewish practices were punishable by death and had his soldiers march into Jerusalem to destroy and desecrate the Temple, the soldiers moved on to Modin to enforce the king’s new laws. Here they met Mattathias, who, with his five sons, was part of a community that was faithful to Judaism. Mattathias refused to obey the soldiers’ orders and eventually formed an army of local farmers, who were not trained as soldiers, but who fought against the seemingly more powerful Syrian army, and, after about three years, won. And of course, as the story goes, they went back to the Temple, cleaned it up, and rededicated it. They only had enough oil to light the menorah for one night, but it remained illuminated for eight nights and was considered a miracle.
There has always been a big focus on the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, and yes, that is pretty amazing. To me, however, the most impressive part of the story is that Mattathias, his sons (the most famous being Judah), and his small army all believed in Judaism enough to fight an intimidating army for three years (not months – years). They could have easily abandoned their faith and assimilated into mainstream culture; and indeed, they would have had a much higher chance of survival with that option. But their dedication to being Jewish was so strong they were willing to risk their lives for it. Hanukkah means “dedication,” referring to rededicating the holy Temple. When I think of dedication, I remember the Jews during this time who refused to be swept into what was popular but instead remained dedicated to what was right for them: Judaism. This is a big deal and incredibly inspiring.
Today, more than ever, with an all-time high number of Jews who are “Just Jewish” (an actual category of Jews who are Jewish by heritage, or perhaps by choice earlier in their lives, but who observe Judaism only minimally, or not at all), and anti-Semitism on the rise, it is essential that Jews who do connect with Judaism and who do want to see a future for it, remain steadfast in their commitment to continuing this beautiful religion, heritage, and community.
There are many challenges to living Jewishly, and I am not calling out “Just Jewish” individuals as a judgement as I realize that we all have our unique paths to follow and not all of them will be Jewish from start to finish. That being said, it is so easy and so tempting to swim with the current of mainstream culture than to fight against it. Really, it’s easier not to be Jewish.
But if you do love Judaism, you connect with it, and it speaks to your heart—it gives you a purpose, a value system, a community, and a way of living that brings out the best in you—if this is you, be dedicated to being Jewish. Be proud to be Jewish. Live Jewishly. And let Hanukkah be one of many reminders of the Jews who lived before you who were so dedicated to Judaism, they were willing to die for it, but prayed that they could live for it.