The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 10, and ends at sundown on December 18, 2020. Also known as the Festival of Lights. The festival commemorates the re-conquest of the land of Israel and the re-dedication of Solomon’s Temple. The land of Israel, including the city of Jerusalem, was conquered by Antiochus III (ruled 222-186 BCE), King of Syria, who at first dealt kindly with the Jews. When he was defeated by the Romans and made to pay them heavy taxes, he extracted the tax in gold from the treasury in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. The treasury held the half shekel each adult male Jew gave annually for the upkeep of the Temple, and an amount for orphans to be paid when they came of age and went out on their own.
At Antiochus’s death his son Seleucus IV further oppressed the Jews. He was followed by his brother Antiochus IV, called the Madman. Defeated in a war with Rome, Antiochus IV returned to Jerusalem and ordered his army to attack the Jews. Thousands died. Jewish worship was forbidden, the scrolls of Law were burned, rituals were forbidden, and Jews were made to eat pork. Thousands of Jews fled and hid in the hills of Judea. From 167 BCE to 160 BCE, Judah Maccabee and his brothers led battles to reclaimed the land. They cleared the Temple of the Syrian and Greek idols and built a new altar. The re-dedication of the Temple was held on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev (November-December) in 139 BCE.
The original Gold Menorah was stolen when Antiochus IV savaged the Temple; a new one of crude metal menorah was made for the re-dedication. A Menorah has six cups of equal height to hold the consecrated oil, representing among other things, the tree of life and the six days of creation, and a seventh taller cup in the center representing the light of God. However, there was only a small amount of purified olive oil was found, and it was only enough for one night.
The Hanukkah miracle occurred as the one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days, the time necessary to prepare new oil. A new celebration of Hanukkah was declared, and a new lamp was created. Hanukkah lamps had eight oil cups and with a ninth, the Shamash, with oil to light the others. The new lamp celebrated the miracle of eight days of light and the rededication of the Temple.
Lighting the Hanukkah lamp is the most significant part of the celebration. The honor of lighting the lamp goes to a woman. The Talmud and other scholars state that women contributed to the victory of Hanukkah and compare their part in the victory to that of Judith (Book of Judith, Apocryphal Gospels which are excluded from Hebrew and Protestant books) and her victory over the Assyrians. Centered on the lamp is the image of Judith and Holofernes. Judith, a beautiful widow of Bethulia in the sixth century BCE, was determined to save her city from the Assyrians. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Assyria had sent his general Holofernes to conquer the town. He laid siege to the town and their victory was assured as the people of Bethulia would soon starve.. Judith dressed in her finest and with her maidservant went to the camp to see Holofernes. She promised to aid him with the conquest and an easy victory if he promised to spare her people. Holofernes was charmed. In three days, at the dark of the moon, she would lead him to a secret entrance into the city. Until then she agreed to stay in the camp and only asked to go outside in the evening to pray.
On the evening before the attack, she contrived to get Holofernes very drunk, and using his sword she cut off his head. Stuffing it into a bag, she and her maid went out to pray as usual. When the soldiers came to wake Holofernes, they found him dead. Without a leader the army foundered, and the city was saved.
The Talmud states that Jews could not rely on miracles, but should ask God to give them the strength to do the impossible. One story about Judith quotes her: “Give into my widow’s hand the strength that I plot.” Another version of the story relates that she took food into the camp so as not to break Jewish dietary laws. This act presents another aspect of Judith’s link with Hanukkah. Today potato Latkes are a traditional food for Hanukkah: however, they originally were made with cheese. Potatoes were not found in Israel until well after they were brought to Europe from South America and America by Christopher Columbus. In Europe and Israel eating cheese latkes was the tradition. Judith’s food included cheese made from goats and sheep and was extremely salty. She fed Holofernes cheese on his last night; to quench his thirst he drank heavily, and passed out. Cheese latkes became forbidden in the Fourteenth Century when Jews began to fry food in chicken fat (schmaltz), which violated kosher dietary laws not to eat dairy with meat, thus the potato latke. Cheese is still a part of Hanukkah meals as kugel or rugelach. Both cheese and oil remain a part of Hanukkah to remind the Jews of the miracle associated with Judith. Ashkenazi Jews are known for the potato latke. On Hanukkah, the Sephardic tradition features fried jelly doughnuts (Sufganiyot).
Lions and eagles frequently are depicted on Hanukkah lamps. Two rampant lions appear on either side of this bench lamp The Lion of Judah is the symbol of the Israelite tribe of Judah. In Genesis 49:8-10, Jacob blesses his son Judah: “Judah your bothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies. You are a lion’s cub, Oh Judah. The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.” Three eagles refer to God sending eagles to fight against the Egyptians as the Jews crossed the red Sea. On Mt Sinai, God said to Moses (Exodus 19:4): “You yourself have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to yourself.” The Talmud states that eagles fly the highest of all birds and carry their young on their backs rather than in their claws as other birds do. In this way if an eagle is attacked, the children are protected, and the eagle will sacrifice itself for its children.
Early Hanukkah lamps use oil and not candles as we see today. A second Hanukkah bench lamp depicts Judith and her maidservant in Holofernes’s tent. The beheaded general is depicted on the bed his arm lying over a chest. Judith holds Holofernes sword in her left hand and his head in her right hand. The maid servant opens the bag to receive the head. The city of Bethulia appears to sit upon Judith’s head, perhaps an attempt by the artist to place it in the background outside of the tent. Behind the maid servant are waving palm branches. A Hanukkah lamp with burning oil is centered in the composition. To the left Moses holds his staff in his left hand with the waters of the Red Sea swirling at his feet. In his right hand he supports the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. On the right Moses’ brother Aaron is depicted in the garb of a priest of the Temple: a mitre or turban on his head, a breastplate of judgment set with five stones, and a robe with pomegranates and golden bells on the hem as tassels. In his left hand he holds the ninth oil cup, the Shamah, and in his right a sword. “Thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron they brother for glory and for beauty.” (Exodus 28:2)
In the early Eighteenth Century, Johan Adam Boller (1706-32), a member of a famous silversmith atelier in Frankfort, created a Hanukkah lamp that resembled the shape of a menorah rather than the bench type Hanukkah lamp mostly seen in houses. The eight stems are decorated with alternating flowers, knobs and bells. The description of the Golden Menorah God gave to Moses states that seven stems should have intermittent almond blossoms with rings of other leaves and petals. Judith is placed at the top, and at the lower point of the shaft a rampant lion holds a shield with deer and a bird engraved on it. Four roundels at the base with scenes of Rebecca meeting Abraham at the well, and three scenes from the life of Jacob, her son represent new images. Also new are cloisonné enamels and the use of color in the roundels and in some of the flowers. Hanukkah lamps were often wedding presents, and symbols of the family were frequently included.
A game using a dreidel is another part of the Hanukkah celebration. A dreidel is essentially a top that each person spins to win gelt, a small Jewish coin first minted in the Middle Ages. Like the yearly donation of shekels to Holy Temple, gelt was given to teachers as a thank-you gift for sharing their knowledge. Today gelt is more familiar seen as gold foil covered chocolate coins adorned with symbols of Judaism. On the four sides of a dreidel are the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay and shin which explain something about the game. In Yiddish nun stands for nothing, gimel for all, hay for half, and shin for put in. When put together into a Hebrew phrase they stand for “a great miracle happened there” which brings us full circle, referencing the miracle of the eight days of light.
To my Jewish friends, particularly Dena, Happy Hanukkah.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.