I was recently honored by an invitation from Pomegranate Communications, the publisher of my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary(2009) to contribute a post on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah which begins tomorrow evening , December 20/24 Kislev, 5772 at sundown. I’ve re-posted it here:
Friday, December 16, 2011
We are pleased to welcome guest blogger Ilene Winn-Lederer, artist, illustrator, and author of Between Heaven and Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary. In today’s post she provides a brief history of Hanukkah and explains the symbolism of the menorah. Hanukkah begins this year at sunset on December 20.
The holiday of Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, commemorates the historical events that showed the Jewish people’s resilience during the enforced prohibition of their faith and religious culture.
In the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the story begins in 175 BC, when Judea, then part of the Syrian Seleucid Empire under the benevolent rule of King Antiochus III, was invaded by the armies of his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, goaded by special interests dedicated to imposing Greek culture on the Jews.
After the invasion that resulted in the looting and desecration of the Second Temple at Jerusalem, all practices associated with Judaism were outlawed.
One legend relates how children of that era, forbidden to study Torah, would go out to the gardens or fields with their study materials and toy dreidels, or wooden spinning tops. If they were confronted by soldiers who accused them of religious study, they innocently spun their dreidels as a decoy. Below is an illustration of this legend:
In 167 BC, when Antiochus IV installed an altar to the Greek god Zeus in the Temple, he provoked the bloody Maccabean revolt for Jewish independence. The leaders of this rebellion were Mattityahu, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah, who later became known as Judah the Hammer (Judah Maccabee). After the death of his father in 166 BC, Judah inherited the mantle of leadership and under his watch, in 165 BC, the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was completed.
The Temple was then rededicated with a new altar, a restored menorah (candelabrum), and new holy vessels required for proper religious observance. According to Jewish law, the lights of the menorah must be tended for continuous illumination. The Talmud (a core text of Judaism) explains that after the Temple was desecrated, only enough pure (undesecrated) olive oil remained to keep the menorah’s eternal flame burning for one day.
Miraculously, however, the oil continued to burn for eight days, allowing sufficient time for a new supply to be obtained. The holiday is observed by lighting an additional candle on each of eight nights, recalling the time the oil remained alight in the Temple. Outside of Israel, this miracle is recalled by four Hebrew letters traditionally written or carved on the dreidels we use today. The letters nes, gadol, hayah, and sham stand for “A great miracle was there.” Inside Israel, the dreidels carry the letter po instead of sham, meaning, “A great miracle was here.”
The Talmud also states (in Menachot 28b) that the Jerusalem menorah, which has seven branches, may not be used outside the Temple.
So the menorahs used for Hanukkah observance are called hanukiya. They have eight branches plus a ninth (called the shamash or servant), set off from the others, that is used for lighting them.
In Between Heaven and Earth, Ilene Winn-Lederer illustrates the Torah reading preceding Hanukkah, Parashah VaYeishev from the Book of Genesis. Her commentary in the AfterImages portion of the book about this illustration provides further insight into the structure of the menorah and its symbolism.
The steadfast spirit of Hanukkah is also reflected in the preceding weekly Torah portion, Parashah VaYeishev, found in the Book of Genesis. It recounts the story of Joseph and his brothers, sons of the patriarch Jacob, his two wives Leah and Rachel and their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah. Joseph, Jacob’s youngest son, was the offspring of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. He flaunted his intelligence and prophetic abilities, and his father prized him above all of his other children. Great dislike and jealousy festered among Joseph’s brothers, who plotted to kidnap Joseph and murder him. Whether or not they wished to claim his portion of their father’s inheritance is not clear. Though he was cast into a pit full of snakes and scorpions, the young man survived, setting into motion the story of his journey to Egypt. Initially sold into slavery by unscrupulous captors passing the pit, Joseph was able to use his skill at dream interpretation to rise from servant of the palace guard captain Potiphar to become Pharaoh’s grand vizier, credited with saving Egypt from dire famine. The story continues on the Sabbath of Hanukkah when parashat Miketz is read.
Joseph’s subsequent reunion with his father and brothers, detailed next week in parashat VaYiggash dramatically illustrates the workings of divine providence. I will post an illustration next Monday for that reading.
Finally, if we posit a common thread tying the stories of Hanukkah and these parashiyot together, it might be the dual natures of blessings and adversity, where each occurrence is seeded with the other so that the outcome often manifests as a miracle, teaching us to appreciate the importance of both.