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Myths About Hanukkah

For Christians, Advent has just started; for Jews, they are currently in the middle of Hanukkah. Hanukkah attracted some special notice this year because, once in 80,000 years, it began on the same day as the American Thanksgiving. For weeks ahead of time, there were stories about Thanksgivukkah and how American Jews were planning to celebrate this unique confluence of two different holidays.

So, it came as no surprise to me that on the day before Thanksgiving my Facebook newsfeed began to fill with well wishes for Hanukkah from Christian Facebook Friends for their Jewish relatives and friends. As well meant as these wishes were, and as sincere as is many Christians’ admiration for Jewish observances, I once again noted how little Christians really understand about the history and religion of the Jewish people.

As but one example, every year at Hanukkah there is always some Christian who goes searching for an image of a menorah with which to greet his Jewish circle. He usually finds an ancient relief panel of people carrying a menorah. It looks old, it looks dignified—perfect! He uses it to create an electronic greeting card or he copies it into his Facebook page with a few lovely words wishing everyone a happy Hanukkah.

Just one problem. The image that is found is from the Arch of Titus, a victory memorial honoring the Emperor Titus and his conquests—including the Siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. What is depicted in that ancient relief panel on the Arch of Titus is the looting of the Temple by the Romans. The scene of pagans carrying away the sacred Temple Menorah is completely inappropriate for a holiday that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the pagans and the rededication of the Temple from false worship to the worship of the one true God of Israel.

“Oh, pooh!” you might be thinking. “Sure, a mistake was made. But people will understand that it was not intentional. Why get so worked up over nothing?”

For one thing, the sacking of the Temple by the Romans is not considered to be “nothing” by the Jewish people, but is instead one of their great tragedies, and is commemorated every year with its own holy day, Tisha B’Av. But the larger point is that even well-meaning Christians can cause significant harm to Jewish–Christian relations if they do not take the time and effort to understand modern Judaism.

So, in the spirit of understanding, let’s clear away a few misconceptions about Hanukkah.

Misconception: Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas

Hanukkah and Christmas fall around the same time every year. And there are some interesting correlations that can be seen between the two. But Hanukkah is a distinct holiday with a different story, different customs, and different significance than Christmas. In a nutshell, Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees in retaking the Temple in Jerusalem. The major ritual of the holiday is the lighting of a menorah (more accurately called a hanukkiyah) for eight days. It is a minor holiday on the Jewish liturgical calendar, unlike Christmas which is a major Christian holiday. There is some gift-giving, but that aspect of the holiday has been enlarged by Jews in predominantly Christian countries as a means of salving their children’s desire to receive gifts at this time of year as do their Christian friends. In its original context, gift-giving is an incidental part of the celebration of Hanukkah.

Misconception: Christians should send Jewish friends Hanukkah cards

Hanukkah cards, along with all the other quasi-Christmas Hanukkah trappings, are a source of debate among Jews. Some Jews enjoy sending out Hanukkah cards, wrapping gifts in blue and white paper, stringing up lights in the shape of the Star of David, and baking dreidel-shaped cookies. Other Jews recoil at this, considering all of this to be a Christianization of a minor Jewish holiday. Rather than assume that all of your Jewish friends would enjoy Hanukkah cards, either ask each person what his or her custom is, or send all of them secular New Year’s cards. Whatever you do, do not make a practice of sending non-Christian Jews religious Christmas cards. (Yes, I have seen Christians argue for doing this, either for purposes of proselytism or on the theory that Christians should send out religious greeting cards to all on their Christmas card mailing list without distinction. Whatever the reason, it is a Very Bad Idea to incite non-Christians to exasperation or worse with Christian religious imagery.)

Misconception: Christians should celebrate Hanukkah

This is probably the most troublesome misconception of all. On the one hand, the story of the Maccabees is part of the Catholic Bible and Hanukkah is mentioned in the Gospel of John (10:22–39). On the other hand, St. Paul firmly asserted that Christians are not obliged to celebrate Jewish holidays (Col. 2:16–17).

There seems to be in many Christian quarters, Catholic and Protestant, a fad among Christians of trying out all kinds of Jewish customs and observances. Christians have been holding Seders on Passover, lighting menorahs on Hanukkah, and holding “Sabbath suppers” on Saturday nights; they have been asking if they can wear yarmulkes, prayer shawls, and phylacteries. There is a genuine interest in the Jewish roots of Christianity that is praiseworthy, but is also troubling for any number of reasons. Here are a few:

  • Christians can lose focus on their own rich heritage. By focusing on the customs and practices of others, they may lose appreciation of their own. Reciting the rosary, going to eucharistic adoration, holding agape meals are either dismissed as uninteresting or have been forgotten. (Without Googling, can you tell me off the top of your head what an agape meal is?) The novelty of another tradition is elevated over and above one’s own.
  • Many Christians do not know enough about Judaism, or Jewish practice and observance (or the Christian relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people), to be incorporating Jewish customs and holidays into their own devotions. For example, one problem with holding “Sabbath suppers” on Saturday nights as a sort of “vigil” for the so-called “Christian Sabbath” on Sunday is that by Saturday night Sabbath is over and Christians do not observe the Sabbath anyway. (Sunday is the Lord’s Day, and is “expressly distinguished” from the Jewish Sabbath—CCC 2175.)
  • There is a temptation to proselytize Jews by showing off how Christians incorporate Jewish ritual observance into Christian devotion, with the assumption that this means that it should be easy for Jews to convert to Christianity. Imagine for a moment how a Catholic might feel if a Muslim tried to argue that Catholics can convert to Islam because Islam honors the Mother of Jesus (which it does).
  • Not surprisingly, Jews often resent Christian cherry-picking of their customs and observances, even when these practices are not then used as a weapon with which to proselytize Jews into conversion. Again, taking the analogy given above, how would a Catholic feel about a Muslim praying the rosary while adjusting for Islamic belief the words of the prayers and their meaning (e.g., “Mother of God” to something Muslim-friendly)?

All of this is not to deny that there can be circumstances in which it is not objectionable, from a Christian point of view, for Christians to incorporate Jewish customs and observances into Christian practice. This is especially the case for Christians of Jewish heritage who are seeking to maintain their identity as Jews and their commitment to their heritage and history. Generally speaking though, any Christian doing so because he thinks “Jewish roots” are “cool,” or because he thinks there is some kind of “obligation,” or because he thinks doing so will help him proselytize Jews, needs to take a long step back and refocus his attention on learning and valuing his own religious tradition.

The Meaning of Hanukkah

If Christians learn nothing else about Hanukkah, they should learn that it is a holiday that commemorates a rejection of false worship and an affirmation of worship of the one true God.

As noted earlier, Hanukkah is mentioned in the Gospel of John. On the winter feast of the Dedication (the word Hanukkah derives from a Hebrew word meaning “to dedicate”), Jesus is walking near the Temple (10:22–23). He was asked by those there to celebrate this feast, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (v. 24). In response, Jesus says to them, “I and the Father are one” (v. 30). He was telling them that he was much more than the earthly messiah that they had been expecting; he was, in fact, God himself.

And that is why “the Jews took up stones again to stone him . . . not for a good work . . . for blasphemy—because you, being a man, make yourself God” (vv. 31–33). They did, in fact, most likely think they were merely doing as their ancestors did—seeking to expel a false god from the Temple dedicated to the one true God of their forefathers.

There is much about Hanukkah that Christians can learn from, appreciate, and claim as a piece of their own heritage. But we cannot do so without respecting Hanukkah for what it is for the Jewish people and for what it means to them.

From Advent through Passover/Easter, to Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, the Catholic and Jewish liturgical cycles spiral around one another in a stately progression of challenges to God’s people to repent, to remain faithful to God’s call, and to prepare the world for the coming of God’s reign. While each is distinct and unique, they are related to one another. Christianity is engrafted on and continues to draw sustenance from the common root, biblical Israel (God’s Mercy Endures Forever).

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