This article was printed in the Clilei HaChodesh of the Young Israel of Greater Cleveland Chanuah 5777
Every year, as Chanukah approaches, I am baffled by a tremendous irony. As we drive through the streets and walk through stores, there is one thing that slaps everyone in the face: “Christmas is coming!” The decorations are up long before Thanksgiving, the sales have already started, and the music is playing, and playing, and playing. One would have to be comatose to miss the fact that the biggest holiday on the Christian calendar is right around the corner. And, in truth, this modern version of Christmas has revolutionized Chanukah as well. The same stores that have all the Christmas decorations save a small space for their token Chanukah display; the mall has its token menorah right next to Santa; and of course, politically correct well-wishers make sure to include Chanukah with the relatively generic “Happy Holidays.” A few years ago, they were actually marketing Chanukah stockings!
But the influence of Christmas on Chanukah goes deeper. To where, you might ask? The presents. Since I am not a Christian theologian, I do not know the source for gift-giving at Christmas. On the other hand, I am a rabbi, and after many years engrossed in Jewish studies, I can honestly say the same thing about Chanukah: I have no knowledge of a Jewish source for giving gifts on Chanukah. Giving holiday gifts is a Jewish concept: The Code of Jewish Law1 says clearly that to enhance the joy of a holiday, a husband should give his wife new clothes or new jewelry for the holidays and parents should give their kids treats. However, this Jewish tradition of holiday gifts applies to the three Torah festivals; I hardly think that this is the source for the widespread trend of giving Chanukah presents in particular. After all, you don’t see Hallmark marketing “Passover wrapping paper” or a jewelry store having a Succos sale.
What, one might ask, is the big deal if we give gifts specifically on Chanukah? It makes everybody happy!
This brings us to the irony I mentioned in the introduction. What are we celebrating on Chanukah? Many in the hands of the few? Correct. Oil lasting for eight days? Right. Military victory over our Syrian-Greek oppressors? True. But I think there is a core issue that ties all of these events together. Chanukah was not really a war against the Greeks; it was a war against Greek culture, or Hellenism. Now, do Jews really take issue with other cultures? Usually not enough to go to war. When does another culture become a threat that must be fought? Only when it begins to take us over.
At the time of the Maccabees, Hellenism had taken over the Jewish world so much that many Jews were more Greek than Jewish. They had adopted names like Hyrkanus and Aristobulus. They played sports in the nude and read Aristotle and Plato. There was actually a procedure developed that undid the circumcision! When the war broke out, who was really fighting? It was Jew against Jew. The Jewish people were fighting their brethren for spiritual survival. We were fighting to stop this wave of assimilation that had engulfed the Jewish world. The Greeks were a secondary problem. And this is what we are truly celebrating on Chanukah: the survival of Jewish culture over the Greek culture.
The irony: Here is the holiday on which we commemorate the fact that at one point in history, a foreign culture infiltrated us so completely that everything that was Jewish started to look and sound Greek. On Chanukah, we celebrate our triumph over that influence. And how do we celebrate it? Presents (like the Christians), decorations (like the Christians) and STOCKINGS! I think that we can all see that there is something wrong here.
As Chanukah approaches, we should all take some time and think. Think about the lives we live. Are we driven by Jewish values or by Western values? Is our Jewish education on par with our Western education? These are the questions on which we should be focusing as the eight days of Chanukah approach. As we stare at the light of the menorah and spin those dreidels, we should let the truisms of Chanukah penetrate our hearts, and make a firm commitment to live as Jews.
I will say in conclusion, however, that there is no problem giving gifts on Chanukah. Just make sure that you do it on Purim, Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos as well!