Deepen your family’s Chanukah experience, beyond the gelt and glitz and gifts. These eight values are derived from the story of Chanukah, with pieces for learning, asking, doing and reading. Choose to explore as many values as you’d like. You can go in order, or skip around as desired, but we recommend ending with Rededication.
Note to parents: we recommend reading the night’s value through first to be familiar with it and decide if there are parts where you’d change the words to suit your child’s developmental level. We have offered a variety of questions—please choose the ones that would best work for your family’s discussion.
For each of these 8 Values of Chanukah, we offer:
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)).
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.”
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)
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.
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.
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.
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 preserve Judaism for future generations, and what we should do to preserve the earth for future generations.
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?