Chanukah: ours, theirs or something else
Parshat Miketz, Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
There is a Christmas song entitled “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” For us Jews, I disagree. This time of year can be confusing, difficult, but not wonderful. How do you respond to “Merry Christmas?” Will people be insulted if you offer “Happy Holidays?” In your place of business, especially where you may have non-Jewish customers, should you put up a Christmas tree or just wintery kinds of decorations, or should you have Chanukah decorations as well?
When I was a youngster, I do not recall any commercially made Chanukah decorations (except for an electric red lava lamp type of dreidel we hung in our front window). My mother made all of our Chanukah decorations, which included glittered star mobiles and a gold spray-painted tzedakah box that had faux coins (really buttons on a string) leading into it.
Now you can decorate your house in Chanukah lights. There are Chanukah banners or flags for homes, even Chanukah inflatables for the yard. There are Chanukah cards galore, including those for intermarried couples that acknowledge Chanukah and Christmas.
It seems that even though there is no connection between Chanukah and Christmas (except if the Maccabees had not won, we would probably all be pagans), it seems that we have assimilated a lot of the Christian holiday into our own celebrations. (Check out the Chanukah House in Baltimore online).
There are those who, I am sure, feel the assimilation is outrageous, if not just wrong. But, in reality, it is not new. Our Torah portion has an example of assimilation. When Joseph was brought from prison and interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, Joseph was appointed to supervise the storage and distribution of the grain and was made second in command of all of Egypt. He was dressed like an Egyptian (Genesis 41:42) and given an Egyptian name, Zapheanth-paneah (Genesis 41:45). In fact, he was so Egyptian that his own brothers who came to Egypt to buy grain did not recognize him (Genesis 42:8).
There is often a misconception that Jewish observances have been the same since Sinai. Our contemporary borrowing from our non-Jewish neighbors in our celebration of Chanukah (which was way after Sinai in any case) is but one example of how Jewish observances change.
The most fascinating change connected to Chanukah, I discovered in a book entitled “Tales of Aleppo” by Haim Sabato, who relates that many of the people of Aleppo have a chanukiyah with 10 spaces instead of the typical nine. It is the custom of many Jews from Aleppo to light two candles the first night of Chanukah along with the shamash and then three on the second night with the shamash, until on the last night of Chanukah there are 10 candles burning. Sabato writes that this was supposedly instituted by exiles from Spain who arrived in Aleppo at Chanukah time and were saved from a shipwreck by a miracle. Thus, they add the extra candle to recall that miracle. Though not assimilation, it is still a wonderful example of how we Jews took something we experienced and reworked it into our observance.
Whether you use a candle-burning chanukiyah, an oil-burning one, an electric one, have an inflatable one in your yard or one with 10 candles, may your Chanukah be filled with light.
Rabbi Sara Rae Perman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.