History and celebration: what Hanukkah means to me

By Warren Ort, Guest Columnist
Posted 12/23/19

As a young boy growing up in a Jewish household, the festival of Hanukkah — which runs from December 22-30 this year — was my favorite holiday. The reason could be that the holiday lasted …

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History and celebration: what Hanukkah means to me

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As a young boy growing up in a Jewish household, the festival of Hanukkah — which runs from December 22-30 this year — was my favorite holiday. The reason could be that the holiday lasted for eight nights, and my parents and relatives gave me different presents for each night of Hanukkah.

The holiday is celebrated with friends and family attending a candle-lighting ceremony, which is highlighted by the lighting of the Menorah. The Menorah is a nine-branch candle holder. Starting with the first night of the holiday, one candle is lighted and every following night an additional candle is lit, until the eighth night when all candles are burning. An additional candle called the Shames (servant) is used to start the candles, and burns every night as well.

Gifts are given to the children, prayers are recited over the candle lighting, games are played and food fried in olive oil is eaten. Latkes (potato pancakes) and deep-fried doughnuts filled with jam and covered with sugar are featured. There is no talk of calories during the holiday. The reason for the olive oil is to serve as a reminder of the miracle that while there was only enough olive oil for the candles to last for one night, they stayed lighted for eight nights.

Hanukkah celebrates the reclaiming and rededicating of the second temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greek armies, led by Seleucid General Apollonius between 167-160 BCE. The Maccabees were a clan of priestly Jewish warriors who led a revolt against the Greeks who wanted the Jews to worship Greek Gods. At first the Seleucids almost annihilated the Maccabees because they would not fight on the Sabbath.

The Maccabees soon learned this was not a good idea, and they fought seven days a week.

While Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar and is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, it is written about in the Talmud. The Talmud is a record of Jewish and ceremonial law. There are no requirements for abstaining from work, school or physical activity during the holiday.

Now on a different note...

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper are the two holiest of Jewish holidays. These holidays require Jews to attend houses of worship to pray, limit physical activity, and to fast on Yom Kipper, the day of atonement.

A story is told that during the Civil War Jewish solders felt the need to return home to celebrate these important holidays. In July 1861, Rabbi Max Michelbacher of Richmond wrote a letter to General Robert E. Lee requesting furloughs for Jewish troops serving in the Confederate army so that they could go home for these important holidays. Over 2,600 Jewish troops did serve. While the General denied the Rabbi’s request, he wrote a thoughtful reply, which I would like to reproduce.

Headquarters of Army of Northern Virginia Sept 20-1861

Rev. M.J. Michelbacher, Richmond, Virginia

I have received your letter of the 15th asking that furloughs may be granted to the Israelites in the army from September 30th to October 11th to enable them to repair to Richmond to observe the holy days appointed by the Jewish religion.

It would afford me much pleasure to comply with your request did the interests of the service permit. But it is impossible to grant furloughs to one class of solders without recognizing the claims of others to a like indulgence. I can only grant furloughs on applications setting forth special grounds for them, or in accordance with general orders on the subject applicable to all army alike.

I will gladly do all in my power to facilitate the observance of the duties of their religion by Israelites in the army and allow them every indulgence consistent with safety and discipline. If the application be forward to me in the usual way, and it appears that they can be spared, I will be glad to approve as many of them as circumstance will permit.  Accept my thanks for your kind wishes for myself,  and believe me to be,

With great respect,

Your obedient servant,

R.E. Lee

Since the first day of Hanukkah began the evening of December 22 and ends the evening of December 30, I want to wish all a Happy Hanukkah, a Merry Christmas and a joyous holiday season.

Warren and Barbara Ort moved to Fearrington from Oyster Bay, New York, a decade ago and serve and volunteer with various organizations in Chatham County, and are regulars at Virlie’s Grill and the S&T Soda Shoppe.

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