Every year I am challenged as a mother by the proximity of Chanukah to Christmas, especially in a year like this where the two actually coincide. How can our candles possible compete with their stunning display of colorful lights, gift-filled shopping malls, their decorated houses and trees? What do I say when the kids ask me if Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
What you and many like you are facing is truly a challenge. We and our children are surrounded by the culture of the country in which we live, and if we try to "outdo" those around us we are doomed to failure. We must instead, while acknowledging the compelling nature of the local culture, focus on the beauty of what we have as Jews.
I have always been struck by what I consider one of the greatest ironies of Jewish history: Scholars have shown that many of the customs and celebrations of Christmas are actually based upon our celebration of Chanukah, which predated Christianity by hundreds of years. In their desire to attract Jews to Christianity, its founders established this holiday at the same time as Chanukah, with many similarities but better, hoping it would break down the barriers for Jews to enter their fold. Hence their lights, which are an embellishment of our lights. The gifts, which started later, a takeoff of our Chanukah "gelt." The original 12 days of Christmas are a replica of the Torah reading of Chanukah, which outlines the gift of the 12 heads of the tribes during the consecration (Chanukah) of the original tabernacle, over 12 days.
Studies show that more Jews observe Chanukah than any other Jewish holiday. Some sociologists explain this phenomenon as, like you mentioned, many Jews consider Chanukah their "Jewish Christmas." How ironic is it that the very holiday which is a replica of Chanukah should be reversed and serve as the source of Jews observing Chanukah!
The irony continues to grow: Many, if not most, of the familiar Christmas carols which define the contemporary holiday were actually composed by Jews – including "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," "Santa Clause is Coming to Town," "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer," "Let it Snow, Let it Snow," "Silver Bells."
To make it even more ironic, the very essence of Chanukah was enacted as a celebration of the Jews to withstand the attempts to assimilate the Jews into Greek culture and society. The miracle of the menorah was performed upon a flask of olive oil. One of the symbolisms of oil is that even when mixed well with water, eventually the oil will not remain in suspension but will separate and rise to the top. So too the Jews did not become assimilated; they eventually separated and rose back to the top, to their connection to God and to each other. The last thing we would expect is for Chanukah to be a way to identify with the culture around us, the antithesis of its message own essential message!
I recommend visiting some of the many wonderful Jewish websites which offer a wealth of material you can utilize to explain the beauty of Chanukah to your children and will enrich your own appreciation of this special time. Aish.com provides articles, videos, coloring pages and many multi-media opportunities to bring Chanukah alive to your family and friends.
On Chanukah we begin with one light and ascend to more and more lights, day by day. May Chanukah be a time that all Jews will ascend and grow in their pride of being Jewish!
I know that people exchange gifts and food baskets with each other on Purim. Are there specific requirements for this? Is this just a nice practice or does it have a basis in Jewish law?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
What you have observed is one of the four special mitzvot of Purim, known as mishloach manot, or the sending of gifts. After the salvation of Purim, Mordechai and Esther instituted several means of celebrating the victory, among them "the sending of gifts, one to his fellow” (Esther 9:19,22). By so doing, every year on Purim we would experience the joy of giving to others and recreate the sense of unity and camaraderie the salvation engendered. Also, practically, it would ensure that Jews would all have the necessary food to enjoy the Purim celebration.
So yes, mishloach manot is a mitzvah instituted by the Sages rather than just an informal pleasantry. Here are some of the basics rules.
(a) As a minimum, one must send mishloach manot containing two types of food (or drink) to one other person (Talmud Megillah 7a). This is based on the literal translation of the verse “the sending of gifts, a man to his fellow.” Note that “gifts” is plural, while “fellow” is singular. (There is what I call a Jewish urban legend that the two foods must require different blessings, but there is no basis for this.)
(b) There is no limit to how much one may give and to how many people, as Maimonides writes, “whoever increases, it is praiseworthy” (Laws of Megillah 2:15). At the same time, Maimonides writes that it is preferable to spend more on the mitzvah of giving charity to the poor on Purim (matanot la’evyonim) than on mishloach manot and one’s own Purim feast – for there is no greater joy than bringing good cheer to the needy (2:17). In fact, many people today, rather than sending elaborate, decorated baskets to tens of friends and acquaintances, send greeting cards which state, “A donation was given to institution X in lieu of mishlaoch manot” – at the same time wishing them a happy Purim.
(c) One should preferably send foods which are ready-to-eat, so that his fellow can enjoy them on Purim itself (Mishna Berura 695:20).
(d) One should send mishloach manot on the day of Purim rather than on Purim eve (Rema 695:4).
(e) The mitzvah is binding on both men and women (Rema 695:4). Some married women rely on their husbands and send gifts as a couple, but more proper is for each spouse to send at least one gift on his or her own, the husband to a man and wife to a woman (see Mishna Berura 25).
(f) There is an opinion that mishloach manot should be sent via a messenger (Mishna Berura 18); based on this, it’s preferable to send at least one package via a third party.
(g) Being that the purpose of sending such gifts is to increase friendship among people, many rabbis recommend that one not just give to all his closest friends. Rather, one should seek out those he is not so close to – or perhaps the one he has had a strained relationship with in the past. Another excellent idea is to give to an acquaintance or coworker who may not otherwise be celebrating Purim. All such ideas help increase friendship and good will among people, rather than being the typical (expensive) yearly formality.
(h) I suppose that since it’s Purim we should close with one final important word of caution: Don’t drive to deliver your mishloach manot when you’re under the influence!
A happy Purim!
During the war against the Maccabees, why did the Greeks make such an effort to attack the Holy Temple in Jerusalem?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Surprisingly, when the Greeks attacked the Temple, they didn't try to destroy it or burn it down. Rather, they defiled it. They offered pig sacrifices and brought a statue of Zeus into the Temple. The Greeks transformed the Temple into a house of idol worship. No longer did light stream from the Temple; the word of God was silenced.
The Greeks didn't want to totally destroy Judaism. Rather, they sought "li-Challel" - literally, to make it empty. They wanted to defile Jewish holy objects. To tear the heart and meaning out of Judaism. To take away the depth and reduce it to symbolism. To sap its spiritual core and to render it impotent.
This explains why the Greeks carefully scoured the Temple grounds searching for pure flasks of oil (bearing the seal of the High Priest). They knew that defiling the oil would silence the light of the Menorah - the light of Torah which reflects the depth and meaning of Jewish national and religious life. The Greeks knew that was the way to best "conquer" the Jewish nation.
Therefore, the reversal of such an attack is to put the meaning back in Judaism. How is this achieved?
The answer is found in Genesis 46:28. Before bringing his entire family down to Egypt for what will be the start of a brutal period of slavery, Jacob sent Judah ahead of him to make preparation in Goshen. The Talmud asks: What preparations did Judah make? He built a yeshiva, a house of Torah study. Through learning Torah, and uncovering the depth of relevance and meaning, we pour light into the world and drive away the darkness of exile.
When lighting the Chanukah candles, it's a wonderful lesson to keep in mind.