Many people have wrong ideas about the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. The following are a few examples:
- Hanukkah does not celebrate a victory over the Greeks. The Greeks ruled many kingdoms due to Alexander the Great’s conquests, such as Egypt and Greece. Judea, the name Israel had at that time, was persecuted by the Syrians, who were Syrian Greeks, who, for political reasons, tried to force Judeans to worship Syrian gods.
- The miracle of Hanukkah was not, as currently taught, that the Judeans lit the temple candelabrum with oil that could only last one day but lasted eight days. The miracle was that a small Judean army was able to beat the Syrians. The several books Maccabees, written about the time the events occurred, state that the Judeans celebrated their victory for eight days because they could not observe the eight-day holiday of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret during the war, so they did so when they were victorious. Centuries later, during the mid-first millennium, the rabbis didn’t want to celebrate a military victory, so they invented the story of the miracle of the lights.
- The dreidel has nothing to do with Hanukkah. The Yiddish name dreidel, sevivon in Hebrew, the design, and the way people play with it are copies of gambling with such a toy in many ancient cultures. The several attempts to give the dreidel Jewish significance were inventions long after the Jews first played with the dreidel. The earliest mention of the old toy was in the early 1500s when it was called totum or teetotum, meaning “all,” referring to the chance that players could win money or other items used in the game. By 1800, the totum had four letters: T = the spinner Takes everything in the pot. H = the player only gets H P = the spinner needs to Put money in the pot. N = the spinning player gains Nothing from the spin. In Germany, where the Jews copied the toy, its design, and method of play, the toy was called torrel or trundle, meaning spinning, which the Jews translated into Yiddish as dreidel. Thus, ironically, while Hanukkah celebrates a victory over assimilation, one of the items many Jews use during the holiday is an example of assimilation the ancient Jews were trying to avoid.
- An interesting fact about a dreidel record is that seven Jewish astronauts flew into space at different times. One, Dr. David Wolf, was in space during Hanukkah. He spun a dreidel in zero gravity and reports: “It went for an hour and a half until I lost it. It showed up a few weeks later in the air filter. I figure it went about 25,000 miles.”
Hi Rabbi – if you haven’t already seen it, the Talmudology blog reposted a very interesting story about the pushback to the claim that there was no miracle of the oil lasting eight nights, with a link to an expanded story on the issue in Seforimblog. I find the religious reaction to concepts outside the “mesorah” brought by those from within the fold almost as interesting as the historical claims themselves. Part of my ongoing religious struggle is finding ways to bridge the gap between the rational and some elements of the received Jewish tradition. Your work has helped me with that. Thank you.
We agree, Sam. Thanks for the compliment.
Shabua Tob Rabbi: The Book: Understanding of Hazal – english version translation of Rabbenu Avraham Ben HaRambam’s guide to understanding the words of the Sages. Your valued thoughts & thank you!
Thank you, Yaaqoub.
I still have my old toy. I just gave it a spin. The spinner landed on a “T” Takes all. My dreidel is in Yiddish. It is not the common dreidel. It is more like a spinner that you can put in a cup. It has very colorful houses drawn into it. I wonder what the astronauts’ spinner landed? I also doubt the candelabrum oil miracle and agree that Hanukkah is not about fighting the Greeks but Syrians. Great list of Hanukkah misconceptions.
Thank you, Shmuel.