Rabbi David Zauderer
Rabbi David Zaudererís spin on the dreidel and other Chanukah customs.
I have, thank G-d, many positive associations about Chanukah from when I was growing up as a kid in New York City in the previous century (in the days when the "web" was a place where a spider hung out and a "cell phone" meant a telephone you used in jail.)
We always got together with our extended family (after all those latkes, who wasn't "extended"!) for a great big Chanukah party, where we would light the menorah and sing Chanukah songs. All of us kids would receive Chanukah gelt and play a game of dreidel with pennies, while the adults would sit around the dining room table, shmoozing and waiting for those oily, greasy latkes to be put on their plates, only to be smothered in applesauce or sour cream.
Chanukah was pure fun, and I look forward to another Chanukah party this year -- only this time my kids will be sitting on the floor trying to win at the dreidel game, while I sit around with the grownups (yikes!), waiting for the latkes.
Well, just as my role at the Chanukah party has changed as I matured and grew older (and hopefully wiser!), so, too, has my understanding of these fascinating (and rather strange, I might add) customs that Jewish kids and adults have been doing for so many centuries.
Why do we play dreidel? Eat oily latkes? Give Chanukah gelt? Where did these interesting customs come from? Here's my "spin" on these Chanukah favorites:
ON "TOP" OF THE WORLD
The victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrian-Greeks, which the Chanukah festival commemorates, was not, as is commonly thought today, a purely physical battle in which the mighty and Herculean warrior, Judah Maccabee, with pure, brute strength, defeated the entire Greek army and chased them out of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Don't get me wrong -- that's a great story line - but it is historically inaccurate. The clash between the Jewish nation and the Hellenist forces, and the ensuing victory of the Hasmonean priests, was far more than a military victory. It was the victory of the Torah, representing the Divine element of creation, over the then-prevalent Greek culture, which taught that science and the human mind was all that one needed in order to understand the world and to reach perfection.
Judah Maccabee might have been one tough cookie, but tradition tells us that it wasn't his muscle that won the battle against the Greek oppressors, but rather his firm faith in the true cause of all of nature -- Hashem.
And what better way to illustrate the real victory of the Maccabees -- that of Torah and G-dly wisdom over the pure, rational science of the Greeks which denied the Divine aspect of creation -- than for G-d Himself to perform a miracle that would defy nature. One single flask of oil that should have only lasted one night, would stay lit for eight nights, the eight nights of Chanukah. (I have greatly oversimplified the very complex philosophical battle that was waged between the Jews and the Greeks during the Hasmonean period, and the impact of which, to a great extent, can still be felt today. There is much more to be said on this topic, but that cannot fit into this article.)
The driedel has four sides, representing the four corners of the earth, the natural world as we know it. One can spin the driedel, and, while it is spinning, give the impression that it spinning by itself. The spinner might be hidden from view, so that, to the casual observer, it looks like it the driedel is going round and round all by itself. Of course, upon closer inspection, one can readily figure out that someone had originally spun the dreidel, and was there the whole time.
The Greeks of old, as well as some scientists of today, would have us believe that this great big world of ours is spinning all by itself, that no one is really there spinning it, partially hidden from view. So we spin the driedel, to illustrate that although, at first glance, the world appears to spinning all by itself -- if you take a closer look, you can readily see that G-d is, and always was, right there beneath the surface, just waiting to be acknowledged for His wonderful creations. He originally spun this great big world, and He remains here, albeit partially hidden from view -- very much "on top" of the world.
"MY SON, THE RABBI..."
The custom of giving Chanukah gelt to the children has its roots in an old European custom that was practiced on Chanukah with a slightly different twist. Instead of giving money to the children, the parents sent some gelt along with their kids to be given to their Torah teachers, as a token of appreciation for giving the children so much Jewish knowledge.
Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz, an 18th century German Torah scholar, explained this custom as follows: Generally, people will donate money to causes which they think that they, or their children, have benefited from in the past, or hope to benefit from in the future. So we give to hospitals, community centers, local synagogues, etc., but not to yeshivas, or other institutions of higher Torah study. After all, how many people will have children who will become rabbis or great Talmudic scholars?! So, more often than not, the Torah schools don't get too many donations. But then Chanukah comes around, when we celebrate the victory of those who subscribe to Torah and its "higher wisdom" over those who would deny that there is anything more to this world than that which we can perceive through the eyes of rational science.
And when we light the menorah, we remind ourselves of the miracle that occurred with the oil -- a miracle that shows us that nature is just a mask, or rather a vehicle through which one can better appreciate all that G-d does for us. And we start thinking, "Maybe there is something to all that Torah stuff my kid comes home from school with!"
So we send a little gift along with our child the next time he goes to study Torah with the rabbi, with a little note expressing our sincere gratitude to this teacher who is exposing our child to the G-dliness in all of creation.
That was the Chanukah gelt of olden times. And although today we might give gifts to our kids (and I think it's a wonderful idea which creates very special associations in a child's mind when he/she thinks about Chanukah), the lesson of the way our great-grandparents gave Chanukah gelt back in the Old Country is too important to be left unnoticed.
AN "OILY CHILDHOOD" LESSON
In order to understand the other wonderful Chanukah custom -- that of eating high-cholesterol, greasy-as-can-be potato "latkes" (pancakes) -- we must explore the essential ingredient in the latke, the oil.
The commentaries explain that oil has two interesting qualities to it: (1) it is produced by smashing and pressing olives to a pulp until the oil flows out of them, and, (2) it doesn't mix with water.
The name of the festival, Chanukah, comes from the Hebrew word "chinuch", meaning initiation and dedication. The Maccabees liberated the Temple in Jerusalem from the hostile Greek oppressors, cleaned up the mess which the enemy had made, and "rededicated" the Temple service through the kindling of the menorah with the oil that they found.
When we "initiate" our children (and ourselves) into the service of G-d - when we begin "dedicating" our children to the study of G-d and His Torah -- we would do well to remember these two lessons which the oil teaches us. As we grow in our Judaism (or in anything else for that matter), we will inevitably face many challenges and obstacles to our faith and Jewish knowledge. Whether it is a problem that our child faces at school, or a gnawing question that we have as adults, we are bound to face all types of things that can easily set us back spiritually.
But just like the oil in the latkes -- which only got to be oil through being pressed and smashed -- we, too, need those challenges and even setbacks in order for us to grow and become greater people and greater Jews. When life gets too easy, we don't really grow too much.
It's when the boat gets rocked a little, that we hopefully rise to the challenge and are the better for it. So the next time your daughter comes home with a problem she's having at school, or the next time you find yourself struggling with issues that inevitably come up and rock your calm, tranquil boat -- remember the oily latkes. When you see the latkes, think "challenge to be overcome" and not "another miserable problem in my life."
And just like oil doesn't mix with water but retains its own distinct identity, we have to develop in our children as they are initiated into Jewish life and Torah study a tremendous pride in their Jewish identity and religion.
As Jews, we can get along with everyone, respect who they are, and, at the same time, celebrate our differences. We have our own way of lighting up the world - it's called the menorah and it rhymes with Torah -- and we should proud of who we are.
Rabbi David Zauderer is a member of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel.
You are invited to read more Chanukah articles.
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