Is Hanukkah Like Christmas For Jews?
What Is The Difference Between Hanukkah & Christmas?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Does it make you feel uncomfortable when Hanukkah gets lumped together with all the other “winter holidays”? When people talk about Hanukkah almost as if it’s just the Jewish version of Christmas? Isn’t this kind of cultural melding exactly what the Maccabees were fighting against?
Well, we have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that there’s no way that Hanukkah is based on Christmas. It was established a few hundred years before the very advent of Christianity, so no need to worry about a Hanukkah bush. But the picture is also a bit more complex. Because some historians want to claim that both of these winter holidays are actually rooted in a much earlier Pagan festival: the holiday of the winter solstice. And… are you ready for this?... The Rabbis of the Talmud seem to indicate that Hannukah indeed does have something to do with this earlier Pagan holiday!
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he confronts these disquieting questions, and some puzzling Talmudic passages, to uncover the true identity of the beloved holiday of Hanukkah and its deeply-rooted significance.
The Origin Of Hanukkah
Hey everybody, it is Rabbi David Fohrman here. Hanukkah is around the corner, and how do you know?
Well, if you live in Israel, the stores they start selling the jelly donuts a month in advance. But here in the States, as heretical as it might sound, you often first feel Hanukkah in the air when you're at the mall, and there you see a familiar scene: The orange glow of the electronic menorah mingling with the flickering lights of the Christmas tree.
The greeting cards in the Hallmark store they proclaim "Happy holidays!" With a kind of bland co-mingling of the winter holidays, with religion conveniently taken out of the mix.
And I think many of us fear that dreaded moment, as you're doing your gift shopping and your child turns to you and asks: "Hey, Mom, Dad, is Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas or something? I mean, we get presents, they get presents; we light candles, they have those lit up trees; and our Christian neighbors even light candles in their windows every year. Is Hanukkah just a Jewish Christmas?"
Is Hanukkah Like the Jewish Version of Christmas?
So you explain to your kid: "Of course not, little Jimmy. You see, Hanukkah has nothing to do with that jolly red guy in the suit over there. It's about a small band of Jews, the Maccabees, who rebelled against the Greeks. Not only did the Maccabees defeat their armies, but they recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple and they restored our ability to practice our religion."
So, little Jimmy, he nods his head, but as you leave the mall with your bag of presents, you can't help thinking: "You know, Hanukkah's a holiday about a group of Jews who refused to identify with the dominant, non-Jewish culture. Isn't it a little strange then, that for us, right here in the parking lot, between Nordstrom and the Apple Store, our culture and theirs just seem to melt into each other?"
So you get into the car, and little Jimmy's question continues to echo in your ears: Is Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas? Is it just a strange coincidence that these two holidays always seem to hang out together at this time of year? What's going on here? You shake your head and you drive away.
Hanukkah vs Christmas: Good News, Bad News
OK, so I have some good news for you and some bad news. Good news first. Hanukkah is definitely not the Jewish Christmas – it can't be. Hanukkah predates the advent of Christianity by some 200 years, so it can't in any way have copied Christmas.
But now the bad news: It turns out that you and Jimmy aren't the first ones who've been thinking about all this. Turns out that some academic scholars have been too.
And some of them claim that there is no coincidence here at all: Hanukkah and Christmas coincide with one another because – make sure you're sitting down for this – they're actually both derived from the same ancient pagan holiday.
Do Hanukkah and Christmas Share Pagan Origins?
Now, that may seem horrifying but, relax, I get it, take a deep breath, don't throw rocks at the screen just yet. Let me actually just take you through their case for a minute, then we'll talk about it:
In 1947, a scholar named Julian Morgenstern wrote a series of articles that tried to trace the roots of Hanukkah to earlier festivals. As it happens, throughout the ancient world, pagan cultures would often celebrate a holiday just as the frost was really beginning to settle in – right at the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year.
Morgenstern claimed that Hanukkah was modeled after those holidays – in particular, a holiday observed in ancient Syria. That pagan winter holiday, as it happened, involved fire rituals; and, whenever those Syrians would go and dedicate a new temple to their pagan gods, they'd do it on the auspicious day of that holiday, right around solstice time.
Do Hanukkah and Christmas Overlap?
Any of this sound familiar, folks? I mean, let's remember: what does the name Hanukkah actually mean? It means, "dedication"; it's the day we rededicated our Temple to the Almighty. And lo and behold, we got these fire rituals, too, right? I mean we've got these candles that we light every day of Hanukkah.
Well, according to Morgenstern, we're copycats; our holiday is just a spruced-up version of this pagan solstice celebration. That's Morgenstern's theory.
Ok, now look, if he's right, if the Maccabees were really just mimicking their pagan contemporaries, I don't know about you, but for me, that would be a real letdown.
So what's the truth here? Is Hanukkah, you know, just a Jewish version of that universal winter holiday that we tacked some sort of spiritual message to? Is Morgenstern right? Is Morgenstern an idiot? Have we've all been sold a lie? What's going on here?
Tracing the Origins of Hanukkah
To look for an answer, I want to take you on a journey through two Rabbinic texts that might, together, help us make sense out of all this. These two passages in the Talmud were brought to my attention by Rabbi Ami Silver, one of our collaborators here at Aleph Beta, during a discussion we had about Hanukkah several months ago.
Anyway, I think that when we look at these two passages from the Talmud, and their implications, we'll see that the Sages themselves may have thought Morgenstern was right in one sense – and so very wrong in another sense.
The first Talmudic passage may be familiar to some of you – it appears in Tractate Shabbos, and it is the text from the Talmud that gives the source for Hanukkah itself. The second Talmudic passage, in Tractate Avodah Zarah, seems to come out of left-field, having nothing to do with Hanukkah at all. But, I think there is evidence that these texts somehow are in conversation with each other; that, to really understand either one, you almost have to understand both.
When we do understand both, I think we will also get to something rather profound, even shocking, about the true spiritual roots of Hanukkah.
The Rabbinic Definition of Hanukkah: Mai Hanukkahs (Shabbat 22a)
Ok let's just start with the first text here. It's in the Babylonian Talmud, in masechet Shabbat, page 22a, it goes like this:
מאי חנוכה… What's Hanukkah?
בכ"ה בכסליו… beginning on the 25th day of the month of Kislev
יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון… there is this Hanukkah period for eight days
דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון… in which we don't deliver eulogies and we don't fast.
Now actually let me stop there before we even go any further. Just think about that basic definition of Hanukkah for a minute. You know, what is Hanukkah? These days . . . דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון… during which we don't deliver eulogies, we don't fast. I mean, what is going on there?
You know, if the Rabbi's asked the question: what is Hanukkah? They seem to be looking for a definition. What would you expect a good one-line answer to be? You know, maybe a line about what we are celebrating; the victory in the war, the miracle with the lights. Maybe an explanation of what we do during the holiday – we all gather around with our families and light candles at the entrance to our homes.
After you mention all that important stuff, maybe you'd throw in a line at the end that says: by the way, since this is a festival, that means no fasting or eulogizing for eight days. But, you know, you wouldn't start with that as your one-line answer to the question, 'what is Hanukkah?'
But the rabbis do. That's exactly what they do. They say: What's Hanukkah? "These are the eight days in the middle of winter in which you can't fast or eulogize people when they die!"
Only once they lay out that all-important definition, do the Rabbis then go on to tell you a reason why you don't fast and you don't eulogize. There was this military victory, a miracle with lights, the Temple was restored, all of that, you know, so why is not fasting or eulogizing listed as such a critical definition of the holiday itself?
I mean, if you conducted 10 "man on the street" interviews about the most basic observance of Hanukkah, how many people would immediately tell you about the lack of eulogies you hear on these days?
Anyway, let's go back to the text and, just to kind of finish it up, here's what else the Rabbi's say about Hanukkah. These are the days we don't eulogize, we don't fast, why?
שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל… Because when the Greeks invaded the Temple…
טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל… they defiled all of the oil that was there.
וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי… and when the Kingdom of Chashmonai – i.e. the Maccabees – when they rose up against the Greeks…
ונצחום… and they defeated them.
בדקו… they searched around…
ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן… and they could only find one jar of oil…
שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול… that was still sealed with the seal of the High Priest.
ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד… and it only contained enough oil to light the Menorah for a single day.
נעשה בו נס… A miracle occurred…
והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים… and they were able to light from it for eight consecutive days.
לשנה אחרת… The next year…
קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים... they established these eight days as a festival…
בהלל והודאה… a time of praise and thanksgiving to God.
I'm actually going to suggest to you that this whole business about "no fasting or eulogising" that we were talking about, is not actually a minor detail, as we've been assuming.
You know, as crazy as it sounds, I think it really is, in the Rabbinic view, a kind of basic definition of the holiday. I think the way we'll begin to understand that is actually by looking at that second Talmudic text I was talking about before.