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Hanukkah in the ultra-Orthodox Community

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Written by:
Oz Almog, Hanan Alfer, Haim Kliger

Translated by: Donna Bossin

The ultra-Orthodox view of Hanukkah

Most secular Jews assume that ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate the festival of Hanukkah in the same way they do, perhaps with the addition of prayers in the synagogue. But this is not the case. Ultra-Orthodox Jews do of course light Hanukkah candles, sing traditional Hanukkah songs, eat latkes (fried potato pancakes) and doughnuts, and play with spinning tops known as dreidels. Nevertheless, the rituals, interpretations and lessons of the Hanukkah holiday taught in ultra-Orthodox schools and homes and promoted in the ultra-Orthodox media differ significantly from those of secular, traditional and even modern Orthodox Jews.

Ambivalent attitude toward the Hasmoneans

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have an ambivalent attitude toward the Hasmonean family, who led the successful revolt against the Greeks and the Jewish Hellenists in the Land of Israel. The Hasmoneans purified the Temple, established independent Jewish rule in the Land of Israel in the spirit of the laws of Moses and Israel, and created a flourishing culture and economy. Yet the Hasmonean kingdom and dynasty vanished from the stage of history with not much more than a symbolic protest. Their downfall began when the brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus fought over the throne. This dispute led to a civil war that ended only when the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE. During the height of this war, King Herod took over the kingdom and ruthlessly wiped out all traces of the Hasmonean dynasty. 

The descendants of the royal Hashmonean family fared no better. They were sold into slavery for they had assumed control of a monarchy they did not deserve. According to Maimonides, the crown of the monarchy belongs to the lineage of David. Nahmanides further notes that had it not been for the Hasmoneans, the Torah would have been forgotten. On the other hand, he adds that the Hasmoneans were punished for the sin of violating the edict that the monarchy should not leave the tribe of Judah (Nahmanides, Genesis 49:10).

Divine providence rather than Jewish bravery

During Hanukkah, a special prayer known as Al Hanissim (in celebration of the miracles) is added to the daily prayers and the grace after meals. The wording of this prayer illuminates the ultra-Orthodox view of this holiday. The prayer does not refer to "the glorious brothers," or to the great military strategist Judah Maccabee whose military feats are studied even today, or even to the heroism of Elazar Ben Mattityahu in the battle of Beit Zekharia. Nor does it even make mention of the establishment of an independent Jewish state in the heart of Hellenism. Rather, the prayer describes “the wicked Hellenic government that rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will.”
The prayer teaches that the Holy One, in His great mercies, stood by His people in their time of distress. “You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.” The prayer further describes how the Hasmoneans cleansed the Temple and “kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.” 

Hence, the major messages of Hanukkah promoted in ultra-Orthodox circles are as follows:

A spiritual struggle

Hanukkah represents a struggle between the Hellenists and those who observed the laws of the Torah, between the impure and the pure, between the evil and the righteous. The Greeks did not intend to destroy the Jewish people, but rather to convince them to embrace Hellenistic culture, with its focus on the glorification of the body. Hence, the war and the victory as well were spiritual rather than corporeal.

The truth will triumph

Hanukkah teaches that the truth will triumph when people are prepared to sacrifice everything to it. When asked to sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods, Mattityahu the Hasmonean did not compromise and went on to launch a miraculous revolt.

The few against the many

The story of Hanukkah shows that the righteous always prevail. Most of the Jewish people became Hellenists and adapted themselves to the decrees of the Greek ruler. But although Mattityahu and his sons were in the minority, they were undeterred. With the rallying cry of "Whoever is for God, follow me!" they revolted and won, against all odds. Indeed, like their secular counterparts, ultra-Orthodox teachers and commentators stress that the Hasmoneans had no choice but to go to battle.

"For a mitzvah is a lamp, and Torah, light" (Proverbs 6:23)

Inherent in the miracle of the oil is a powerful message. The oil for lighting the lamp symbolizes the Torah. Secular Jews do not perceive this symbolism and see the oil simply as oil. The ultra-Orthodox view is that even when it appears all the oil has been defiled and the rule of Torah will not be reinstated, even when the few torchbearers seem to belong to a world that is fast disappearing, ultimately a miracle will occur. A jug of pure oil with the high priest’s seal intact will be found, the Temple’s lamp will be relit, and the holy Torah will again spread its brilliance.

Kiddush Hashem (Jewish martyrdom)

The Talmud tells the story of Hannah and her seven sons, who heroically withstood Antiochus's attempts to convert them. Hannah implored her sons to refuse to bow down to an idol or to eat pork, even at the risk of their lives. After six of her sons had been tortured and put to death, the ruler attempted to create the impression that her youngest son had bowed down to the idol, but the boy also chose to martyr himself to God. Hannah then killed herself by throwing herself off a roof, praising God and reciting the words of the psalm “a joyful mother of children” (Psalm 113). 

Virtually every class in the ultra-Orthodox school system puts on a Hanukkah play or performance based on this heroic story. The sons’ bravery and martyrdom are underlined at boys’ schools, while girls’ schools highlight the courage of the Jewish mother.

Maccabees and Hellenists

Torah sources, articles and conversations usually use the name “Hasmoneans” rather than “Maccabees,” and if they do mention the Maccabees they emphasize the acronym spelled out by the Hebrew letters: “Who is like unto Thee, O Lord” (Exodus 15:11). The ultra-Orthodox media underscore the contradiction between the goals of the Maccabee revolt and the contemporary significance of the name “Maccabee.” 

Many secular Jews would find this surprising, considering that the Maccabees are the trademark of Hanukkah in secular and Zionist interpretations of the holiday. But in fact, throughout the year and particularly around Hanukkah, the ultra-Orthodox media hints that if Mattityahu were to make an appearance today, he would denounce today’s Hellenists, calling out "Whoever is for God, follow me!" This being said, it is important to point out that the term “Hellenists” in this context is strictly metaphoric. Moreover, most ultra-Orthodox Jews consider any Jews who do not observe the Torah and its commandments to be "captive children" (raised without knowledge of Torah and observance and therefore not responsible for that lack of knowledge). As such, their secular way of life is understood and generally forgiven.

Hanukkah in the ultra Orthodox family

Lighting the Hanukkah candles

While Jewish law states that the Hanukkah lights must burn for half an hour, the more observant put extra oil in the vials to extend the time the miracle is proclaimed to all. Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveithchik (1886-1959), known as the Brisker Rav, was the leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community and one of the most virulent opponents of Zionism. He would use cups of oil to extend the time the Hanukkah lights burned so that secular Jews attending the second showing at the neighboring Edison movie theater (a citadel of secular European culture) would fulfill the Hanukkah commandment. 

The Lithuanian custom of lighting the Hanukkah candles at sunset, earlier than the Hassidic custom of lighting when the first stars appear, serves to bring the whole family together. The young children are let out early from the heder (school for learning Torah from the age of three), as are the fathers who learn in the kollel (institute for advanced Torah studies for married men). Even the mothers rush to finish the holiday preparations, for during the mandatory half hour the lights must burn, women are forbidden to do any work. 

Although only the head of the family is obligated to light the Hanukkah candle, in the more observant families everyone lights a separate lamp, except for the mother and the daughters who have reached maturity. The father lights first, and the other members of the family then light in order of their ages. After that the family celebrates by singing and eating holiday treats. On the first night, children receive Hanukkah gelt (money) and open presents.

Atmosphere of togetherness

Many families prepare holiday doughnuts and latkes together, with the children, lending a helping hand. Hanukkah is also a time of family visits, particularly from grandparents who spoil their grandchildren with Hanukkah gelt.

The dreidel or spinning top

After the Hanukkah lamp is lit, many families play games with dreidels. These tops are quite simple, made of wood and plastic, as opposed to the more fashionable, decorative, musical or even motorized tops common in the secular and modern Orthodox communities. The Hassidim believe the game originated when the Greeks forbade the Jews to study Torah. The tops were used as camouflage. When the inspectors came around, the children hid their books and began playing with the tops.

Hanukkah in the Lithuanian yeshivas

Placement of the Hanukkah lights

According to Jewish law, the Hanukkah lamp must be displayed so that it can be seen outside, by the largest number of passers-by, in order to publicize the miracle. Yet the law also restricts where the lamp can be placed. For example, the lamp cannot be placed more than twenty amot (arm's lengths) from the ground, for then it is not visible. In this case, it should be placed at the entrance to the house. These restrictions raise numerous questions. For example, what happens if the window is higher than twenty amot but the candles can still be seen from a street on a higher level? What is considered the entrance to the house? For a yeshiva student, is this the entrance to the room, or the entrance to the yeshiva building, or the main gate? In effect, all these sites are acceptable, and the answer is a matter of preference. 

For most families, these questions only arise the first year they celebrate the holiday in their home. For yeshiva students who live in dormitories, these questions come up every year, leading them to consult their rebbe (spiritual leader and teacher) for the answer. 

Lighting the Hanukkah lamp

Hanukkah lamps in Lithuanian yeshivas are not decorative and usually have a standard design - an elongated aluminum strip engraved with the commandment “kindle the Hanukkah lights.” This strip serves as a base for small glass vials filled with oil. The wick is made of compressed cotton inserted into a small tripod placed over the vials or placed on a thin cork disk floating on the oil. After the lights are lit, the yeshiva students customarily have an hour of free time, during which they form a big circle and sing Hanukkah songs. The yeshiva rabbis and teachers light the Hanukkah candles at home with their families.

The celebration

After the lighting ceremony, doughnuts, cakes, cookies and other treats are served in the yeshiva dining hall. The yeshiva Hanukkah party, held on one of the days of the holiday and attended by all the yeshiva rabbis, includes biblical discourse, a festive meal, and dancing accompanied by accordions or drums played by yeshiva students.

Hanukkah among the Hassidim

Victory of spiritualism over materialism

Every Hassid is familiar with this short Torah message expressing the Hassidic outlook on Hanukkah: What is the difference between Purim and Hanukkah? Purim commemorates a threat to the physical survival of the Jews, while Hanukkah represents a campaign against the Jewish spirit. Therefore, the noisemaker spun on Purim is held at the bottom, suggestive of materialism, while the Hanukkah dreidel is held at the top, signifying spiritualism.

The Hassidic rebbe’s role during Hanukkah

On Hanukkah, as on other holidays, the Hassidic rebbe plays a major role. He lights the Hanukkah candles before a large crowd that has gathered round. The rebbe’s feelings of spiritual elevation heighten before and during the lighting ceremony. He devotes special attention to each step, pouring the oil into the vials, placing the wicks, and of course reciting the blessings, with the Hassidim closely watching every move. 

Many Hassidic courtyards hold a special tisch or gathering on the last day of the holiday. At some of these gatherings, the rebbe plays dreidel games, and many rebbes distribute Hanukkah gelt to their followers. This distribution is usually spread over a number of days to avoid crowding. 

One famous custom among the rebbes is to play the violin on Hanukkah. To onlookers, this ceremony seems almost magical, with the rebbe giving a solo recital in the hope that his music will perhaps reach the ears of the Creator.

Hanukkah in the heder

Education in the ultra-Orthodox community begins in the hederHanukkah parties in the heder usually place emphasis on Torah studies, for the holiday is seen as the victory of the Torah over those that would destroy it. During Hanukkah, heder studies finish in the early afternoon so the children can light candles with their families.

Hanukkah in Hassidic educational institutions

Most Hassidic educational institutions, including yeshivas, kollels and seminaries for girls, do not mark the holiday in any special way beyond letting the students out early to enable them to light candles with their families as soon as the stars come out.

date created:12/24/2008  |  last updated:12/15/2010
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