Chanukah – The Transcendent Holiday
In America today there is an unfortunate tendency to secularize and equate Xmas and Chanukah under the heading of "The Holiday Season". It is no longer politically correct to wish someone a "Merry Xmas" or "Happy Chanukah". Instead, one must substitute something like "enjoy your holiday". This is unfortunate for two reasons. Firstly, it undercuts a cherished American value: freedom of religious expression. Secondly, equating Chanukah with Xmas completely distorts the meaning of Chanukah and the enormity of the difference between the two celebrations.
It may come as a surprise to most Americans, but the celebration of Xmas is based on a pagan festival which was celebrated centuries ago in northern Europe. The legend of Jesus' birth at that time of year was superimposed on this pagan festival as Christianity spread into Europe. The shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is December 21, the winter solstice.
From that point on, the days begin to lengthen again, a cause of great celebration for these primitive pagans who feared that the earth would be swallowed up by cold and darkness. For the first couple of days after December 21, there is no measurable difference, but by December 25 it was clear that the days were longer. Hence the great celebration. All the appurtenances of the celebration: the tree, the wreaths, the gifts and the feast are pagan in origin. As a matter of fact there are thousands of devoutChristians throughout the world who refuse to celebrate Xmas because of its essential pagan nature.
The essence of Chanukah could not be more different. On Chanukah we celebrate the triumph of the eternal spiritual truths of Judaism over the enticing, but pagan beliefs of Greek culture. The light of the menorah represents the transcendent truths of Judaism, which go beyond the observable truths of the natural world. Even secular scientists realize that light itself defies categorization. It combines properties of matter and energy. It is transcendent. Chanukah is not about giving and receiving presents. It is about gaining an understanding of the immutable triumph of Judaism and the Jewish spirit in the face of centuries of persecution and enticement.
Christian society has made secular Jews aware of Chanukah on one level. It is our responsibility to deepen this awareness and explain the true meaning of this celebration.
- Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett is the director of the Executive Learning Division of Ohr Somayach in New York. He offers private tutorials in homes and offices throughout the New York Metropolitan area. Topics include Hebrew language, Jewish history and philosophy,Biblical and Talmudic analysis and the Jewish perspective on contemporary social, political, scientific and ethical issues. These sessions are open to Jewish men and women of all ages, backgrounds and affiliations. He also offers Bar and Bat Mitzvah instruction to children.
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