The appeal of Chanukah

December 7, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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The appeal of Chanukah is amazing…why?  Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

The appeal of Chanukah is amazing. Other occasions have their ups and downs, sometimes honoured in the breach more than the observance. But Chanukah continues to win and hold the loyalty of vast numbers of Jews, and to be brought into the public arena as well. Not bad for a festival that is not mentioned in the Tanach. It can’t just be because of the doughnuts and latkes.

The sages actually asked in the Talmud, “Mai Chanukah” – “What is Hanukkah?” (Shabbat 23b). The popular story is that it was a struggle between Jews and Greeks, Jerusalem and Athens. That’s why one of the verses of Ma’oz Tzur, begins, “Yevanim nik’betzu alai” – “the Greeks gathered against me”.

In the 1940s this aspect almost caused a riot at an internment camp in wartime Australia, when Rabbi Jacob Danglow as senior Jewish chaplain was conducting a service for Jewish refugees, with a group of Greek internees present out of curiosity. When the rabbi spoke about a conflict between Greece and the Jews, the Greeks protested very robustly, and it took a lot of effort to restore the calm.

The idea of a conflict with Greeks in ancient Judea is not entirely wrong, but neither is it entirely right. Two aspects need to be taken into consideration – the internal struggle between groups within the Jewish people, and commonalities between Judaism and Hellenism.

In the struggle between Egypt and Syria for control of Judea, some Jews sided with Egypt, some with Syria. Paradoxically, there was Hellenism in both the Egyptian and the Greek cultures, and the issue is not merely which empire would to be more protective of the Jews, but how far the Jews could go in identifying with its version of Greek culture.

So the internal conflict was between two groups of Jewish pro-Hellenists. They had commonalities – language, clothing, literary forms and styles, legal concepts and institutions, even legends. Jewish Hellenisers hoped to be able to maintain Jewish practice in a relatively tolerant pagan environment.

But Jewish nationalism was more stubborn than many people expected. Jews would not easily give up their Sabbath, circumcision, food laws and Torah reading. The traditionalists supported Egypt, whilst extreme Hellenists supported Syria.

There was a deeper philosophical issue. Could Jewish thinking fit into the matrix of Greek ethics and ideas?

It was not a one-time challenge. Change the details and you find a similar encounter with outside philosophies throughout history.

Jewish and Greek thinking diverged radically. Judaism believed in a God who gave a Torah as the path of truth and virtue. Greeks thinking preferred reason as the way to truth and virtue. Hellenism loved beauty, Judaism loved goodness. The one taught “art for art’s sake”, the other “art for goodness’ sake”.

The Greeks liked to be surrounded by statues and pictures, and they valued physical handsomeness. Judaism refused to have anything to do with graven images and regarded the purpose of life as not mere pleasure but serious duty to God and man.


Some years ago, admirers of the late Rabbi Kopul Rosen published a book in his honour. It contains a chapter by Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz who reports how shocked he was when young Kopul Rosen told him that as guest preacher at Rabinowitz’s synagogue in London he proposed to speak about the high priest’s trousers. Actually Rabbi Rosen could speak on any subject with great effect and Rabbi Rabinowitz need not have worried.

The story comes to my mind because of a Midrashic comment on the haftarah for Chanukah. The haftarah is from Zechariah, who sees Joshua the Kohen Gadol standing in the company of the accuser (Satan) whilst wearing filthy garments (Zech. 3:3).

Ibn Ezra says that the elaborate kohen’s robes were not used because the economic distress of the time had plunged the people into poverty. Targum Yonatan says that there was a stigma attached to this particular high priest because his sons had formed forbidden marriages (Ezra 10:18).

The high priest’s trousers symbolised the fact that a massive task of rehabilitation awaited the leaders of the people. Satan was there in order to accuse the kohen of condoning the people’s sins including his own.

According to tradition an ineffectual high priest bore the blame for the errors and iniquities of the people.


In order to publicise the miracle, Chanukah lights are often placed on the window sill or near the front door so that everyone can see them when they pass by.

These days it does not worry us that the general population notice our festival lamps and indeed we accept every opportunity of explaining the wider message of the occasion. But in the medieval ghettos, where the non-Jews were unlikely to be friendly or interested, the Jews themselves were the audience, and it is said that in Venice there were boat tours of the Jewish district with Jews rowing gondolas along the canals and greeting the array of Chanukah lamps they saw.

One of the problems of keeping Chanukah in northern Europe was of course the climate. It was often foolish to venture outside in the bitter wintry weather, so indoor entertainments needed to be developed. Naturally gentiles as well as Jews needed things to do inside the house, so both groups developed games with spinning tops and other toys.

The Jews gave the top a Jewish identity by turning it into the dreidel ortrendle (now called a s’vivon) and placing a Hebrew letter on each side – nun, gimmel, hey and shin, standing for “nes gadol hayah sham” – “a great miracle happened there”. The four letters also indicated the score – “nichts” (“take nothing”), “ganz” (“all”), “halb” (“half”) and “shtell” (“put it”). Despite the halachic aversion to heavy gambling, this allowed Jewish families a sanctioned game of chance that pleasantly occupied many an evening.

In 19th century one would have found non-Jews playing a similar game called Teetotum. We wonder whether this was one of the Jewish contributions to civilisation, but it might actually have been the other way around. The name Teetotum seems to be because one side of the top bore the letter T, which stood for the Latin totum – “everything”. When a player spun the top, they hoped they would get the “T” and end up richer.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.


One Response to “The appeal of Chanukah”
  1. harry rich says:

    I love reading Rabbi Apple’s column. He seems to have a limitless treasure trove of fascinating facts and issues.

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