For better or worse, in the minds of many—Jew and non-Jew alike—Chanukah and Christmas are two sides of a similar, if not the same, coin. Chanukah is often identified as the mechanism by which Jews celebrate the holiday season, and Christmas as the way in which gentile society celebrates. With so many peoples of other cultures, faiths, and no faith living in the West, the focus at this time of year is often less of a religious nature, and more a generic time for holiday celebrations.
There is no more powerful symbol than light in our tradition. It is how we usher in the Shabbat, march down the wedding aisle, mark the yahrzeit of a loved one. Light is the symbol of spirituality which, unlike matters physical, is not diminished when shared. Our spiritual legacy endures long after our physical demise. Our Torah is “Torah Ohr”, the Light of Torah, uniting generations past with those not yet born.
Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah? the Talmud (Shabbat 21ba) queries, a question we find with respect to no other holiday. The Talmud explains that Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days, allowing the needed time to prepare fresh pure oil. However, in reciting al hanissim during davening and birchat hamazon, the focus is very different. Here the miracle of Chanukah is one in which G-d delivered "the strong in the hands of the weak, the many in the hands of the few".
Before there were clocks and standard time, time was determined in relation to the position of the sun—hence, the importance of the sundial. As a rule our Sages followed this course, teaching, for example, that one may daven mincha until sunset, may recite the morning shema until a quarter of the day has passed, or that the earliest time to do a brit milah is at sunrise.
One of the painful realties of Jewish life is that the Jewish people are often judged by a double standard. What in other cultures is done with impunity often causes an uproar when it is the State of Israel doing the exact same thing. While frustrating and unfair, this is a burden of which we should be most proud.
The holiday of Chanukah is a most beloved one. Lighting the candles is the only mitzvah that has, built into its performance, a three-tiered system: what we may call good, better and best. We begin with the basic mitzvah of one candle per household on each of the eight nights of Chanukah. We may opt for the more beautified version, mehadrin, where we light candles according to the number of people in the home on each night.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Jewishly conscious people in the modern world is figuring out the proper relationship we are to have vis a vis the outside world. Should it be one of rejection, integration or compromise? The above models have all been tried and have all met with varying degrees of success. As the challenges of the outside world are constantly changing, so must our approach; what works in one generation may be a disaster for a later one. We can look to historical models for guidance only, but not as an ideal to mimic.
"Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah?" (Shabbat 21b). To this rather strange question, the Gemara answers, "Our Rabbis taught: From the twenty-fifth of Kislev the days of Chanukah are eight on which eulogies and fasting are forbidden" (Shabbat 21b). The Gemara continues by describing the basic outline of the story: how the Greeks defiled the Temple, the Hasmoneans defeated them and upon entering the Temple, found only one flask of oil which miraculously lasted for eight days.
On the surface, it is difficult to understand why we celebrate Chanukah, a festival commemorating the rededication of the Temple and Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. We should have ceased to celebrate Chanukah in the year 70 when the Temple was destroyed, as we did all the other holidays (except Purim) listed in Megilat Taanit. That scroll listed the many holidays celebrating joyous events of the second Temple era. With no Temple, there is nothing to celebrate.