Dear Rabbi: I heard that Hanukkah was the "Jewish Christmas." Is that true?
First of all, I would like to answer this question by saying that Hanukkah and Christmas are unrelated holidays, linked by a calendar. Christmas, of course, celebrates the birth of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem on the 25th of December. Hanukkah, in contrast, celebrates the victory some 150 years earlier of the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, over the Syrian Greeks, which led to an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel.
While Christmas is one of the most important of the Christian holidays, Hanukkah actually ranks as a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. When the Jews entered the Jerusalem Temple in order to purify it - the Greeks had erected idols and sacrificed pigs upon the altar! - they found only one cruse of oil with which to light the menorah (candelabrum). As they searched the countryside for oil, the one-day supply they had lasted for an astonishing eight days. What a miracle! And that is why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days, in recognition of the miracle of the oil.
At this time of year, when the days shorten and night falls ever earlier, Jews and Christians alike bathe their homes in light. Whether the lights are flashing from a tree or from the rooftop - or glowing from the light of a menorah - we are celebrating the fact that God brings light into a darkened world. So all of us let the light shine bright during this wonderful season.
Let me conclude with a word or two as to why Jews do not celebrate Christmas. While I personally do not doubt that Jesus existed, we Jews do not ascribe any divinity to him. So Jesus' birthday, Christmas, is not a holiday for us since we do not claim that Jesus is the Son of God. For us, the Messiah is yet to come.
Let us not, however, allow religious differences to divide us at a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims (this is the holy month of Ramadan as well) all are turning to the one true God in joy. Whatever our religious path, we should follow it wisely and happily, for from it will come blessing and salvation.
From my family to yours, let me wish you a joyous and healthy holiday season.
Jordan M. Parr is rabbi of Congregation Children of Israel.