The word light can be a metaphor describing joy, knowledge, or general well-being. The most treasured book of Jewish wisdom, the Torah, calls on Jews to be “a light to the nation.” On Chanukah, this concept comes alive! For eight nights, Jews gather with family and friends to light the Chanukah menorah.
“It is considered a mitzvah (a sacred act) to share that light with others. Some people place their menorah on the window sill, and others, especially in Israel, use a special box to display the menorah outside. Doing so literally “brightens up” some of the darkest days of the winter. The practice reminds us that our actions can add light to the world!” (from the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA)).
- Chanukah comes at the darkest time of year. How can we counteract the darkness?
- What activities are the lights in your life?
- How can you brighten some of the darkness in your life?
- Who brings light into your life?
While the Talmud relates a tale of miraculous oil, the Book of Maccabees focuses on the importance of Chanukah as a military victory. The armies of King Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks were larger, but Judah Maccabee and his fellow fighters used their knowledge of the terrain to separate the larger army into smaller bands and then defeat them. The Talmudic sages ordained that everyone should kindle lights each night of Chanukah to spread the word of the miraculous victory of “the few over the many.”
- What would you do if you saw…a person being attacked (verbally or physically)? …someone stealing? …someone saying something mean about a person who wasn’t there?
- What makes you unique or different? How do you use your distinct qualities? How do you illuminate your strengths every day? What makes [family member at the table] unique or different?
- To whom would you bestow the Maccabee Award for courage?
- How do you stand up for your beliefs? What ways do you demonstrate your displeasure at a law or social situation?
- What qualities do you strive to strengthen and improve about yourself?
- Write a Letter-to-the-Editor or a letter to an elected representative on an issue you are passionate about.
- Practice (role-play) how you’d respond to an injustice if you witnessed it.
- Learn about Ometz Lev (Courage of the Heart) with this Shaboom! episode from BimBam
- Have an age-appropriate discussion about bullying and peer pressure. For guides, visit Teaching Tolerance or StopBullying.gov.
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When we read the “nun-gimel-hay-shin” of the dreidel, the letters stand for an acrostic, “Nes Gadol Haya Sham”—a great miracle happened there. The “there” in this case is Israel. The events of the Chanukah story happened in Israel, in Modi’in and Jerusalem. One symbol of Israel is the olive tree, a symbol of peace in many cultures. The State of Israel has a menorah and olive leaves on their emblem to symbolize peace (think of the story of Noah and the dove who brought back an olive branch after the flood) and the light produced by the olive oil for the menorah in the Temple. “The amazing olive tree can reach the age of 2,000, regenerate after fire, and produce oil for cooking, lighting, and even anointing kings.” (Jerusalem Post)
- Have you ever been to Israel? What did you like best? What was unexpected about it?
- If you haven’t been to Israel, would you want to go? What would you want to make sure you did/saw there?
- How did they get oil from olives in Temple times? (You can read or watch for the answer)
The scholar Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?" (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14) Hillel and Shammai, another sage who lived at the same time, are famous for “agreeing to disagree.” They often disagreed about various points of Torah or Jewish practice, but they remained respectful in their discourse.
The Book of Maccabees—the “origin story” of Chanukah—includes a troubling record of civil strife between segments of the Jewish population that led up to the fighting. Those who favored some measure of assimilating Hellenistic (Greek) lifestyles were bitterly opposed by those who zealously defended Jewish culture and beliefs against foreign influence. The strife escalated into civil war, which led to the intervention of the Syrian-Greek army and then the loss of autonomy. While the Maccabees restored political and religious autonomy to Judaea through their revolt, it is interesting to wonder what would have happened if the disagreements had not become violent.
- Ask Hillel’s questions to the members of your family—"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?"
- Who is someone you disagree with occasionally but with whom you are still friends?
- In what instance have you extended an olive branch or a gesture of peace?
- Who is in our community? Who is not? Why or why not?
- Be with the community to celebrate Chanukah. You can join a community Chanukah candle lighting, for instance. Find one here.
- Invite others over to celebrate Chanukah. Don’t just include the people you usually invite—include neighbors, non-Jewish friends, colleagues and others to share the light and joy of the holiday with more people.
- Learn a Chanukah song to sing together (link). One option is learning “Chanukah Oh Chanukah” in English and the original Yiddish. Watch the BimBam video with lyrics.
- Light the menorah with far-flung relatives or friends via Skype so that everyone can connect, even if it’s virtual.
The popular “origins” legend for Chanukah relates how a small supply of oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Alternatively, the special prayer inserted during Chanukah, Al Hanissim (for the miracles), highlights the “miraculous” deliverance” we were granted by God and by courageous individuals: “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” This is placed next to the daily thanksgiving prayer which says, “We thank You for Your miracles which daily attend us, and for Your wondrous kindness.” The Hebrew word “ness” also refers to a banner; in this context, a banner is something which we salute, which refers to our values and faith.
The miracles are less about wondrous acts of God and more about stopping to recognize and appreciate them. In this context, it’s gratitude and appreciating something that was amazing, unexpected or saved, and sharing that.
- What would you consider daily miracles?
- Noam Zion, an Israeli educator and scholar, wrote, “Believing in miracles is another way of learning to keep my options open and letting myself be surprised.” Does this make sense to you? Do you agree or disagree?
- What is a miracle the world could really use?
- What miracles are you grateful for?
- Write a thank you letter to someone you know—be specific about why you are thanking them.
- Say the “Shehecheyanu” prayer (said on the first night of Chanukah, too) to stop and appreciate the moment of trying something for the first time or for the first time this year. This blessing gives thanks to God for enabling us to experience a new or special occasion. “Bah-rukh ah-tah Ah-do-nai El-o-hay-nu meh-lekh ha’o-lam sheh-hekh-ye-anu, v’key-ye-mah-nu, v’hig-ee-yah-nu lahz-man hah-zeh,” which means “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day.”
- Write a thank you letter to someone serving the Armed Forces—or put together a care package for them.
- Start a journal and have your family share a “calendar in review” of the miracles they want to remember, either in your lives or something you saw on the news or happening in the world. Keep the journal with your menorahs to pull it out and add to it each year.
Another shade of meaning of the Hebrew word, Chanukah, is education (chinukh). Becoming a life-long learner of Jewish culture is a way to renew yourself and your community.
Playing with the sevivon/dreidel (Hebrew/Yiddish for the four-sided spinning top) is more than just a game. When the decree was issued forbidding Jews from studying Torah or practicing rituals, a creative response helped Jewish life continue. In fields and caves, Jews gathered to study and pray, keeping spinning tops and the equipment of games of chance nearby. If Syrian-Greek soldiers approached, the books were swept away and the “gaming” set up. What looks like a game today was indeed an act of courage and spiritual resistance to oppression.
- “Knowledge is power.” What other examples of spiritual resistance or non-violent demonstrations are you familiar with in history?
- How would you demonstrate your displeasure at a law or social situation?
- What sparks your curiosity to learn?
- If you could teach any subject, what would it be?
- Who passes on the stories of our family? How would you tell future generations?
- Make room on your bookshelves by donating gently-used books that are no longer read in your home to an organization that gives books to kids that don’t have any. Check out Reading Together, First Book, Books for America or Turning the Page.
- Read a book together—it could be a PJ Library book or any family favorite!
- Play dreidel—and teach a friend. If you don’t know how, learn here.
- Learn the real story of Chanukah
The energy source for light in ancient times was olive oil, and Judaea was a major producer of this natural resource. You may have a Chanukah discussion about today’s energy sources and how we can encourage the use of renewable energy. You can make a connection that what the Maccabees did preserved Judaism for future generations, and what we should do to preserve the earth for future generations.
- Who is in charge of turning off the lights in our home?
- How much do you guess our electric bill is this month? (Closest to the right answer gets a prize!)
- What can we do to conserve water/oil/light/paper/etc?
In 167 BCE , a Syrian-Greek king named Antiochus ruled Judaea. He issued decrees that banned Jews from practicing Judaism, culminating in the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem. After a three year battle, Jews, under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, regained control of Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple to Israelite worship.
In modern times, we find ways to rededicate our lives to the values of Jewish tradition and the values of religious freedom. We can ask, in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, who are we, and what do we want to be in the world?
- To what are you really dedicated?
- What else do you wish lasted eight days?
- Who are we, and what do we want to be in the world?
- Which of the values we discussed this week had the most meaning for you?
Download a PDF of these ideas for easy printing.