CHAPTER 2: TRADITION

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13.  What is the difference between a Holy Day and a holiday?

       A: In a broad definition, a Holy Day is one on which there are restrictions on work, such as cooking, carrying objects outside the home, sewing, driving, playing musical instruments, or using electricity, which includes turning lights on and off, watching television, listening to the radio, using the telephone, playing electronic games, checking e-mail, surfing the internet. These Holy Days are all Biblical in origin: Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah.

A minor holiday may or may not be mentioned in the Bible; for example, Purim is included in the Tanakh, while Chanukah is one of the only Jewish holidays not mentioned even tangentially. Despite specific rituals and prayers connected with a minor holiday, there are no restrictions on everyday activities.

14. What other minor holidays are celebrated in Judaism?

       A: There are three other “new years” mentioned in the Bible, in addition to the major Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah, which begins the calendar year:

  1. Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the Trees (the Jewish version of Arbor Day), for the determining the ages of trees and crops for the purposes of tithing and leaving land fallow.
  2. The New Year of Kings, for setting the number of years of a monarch’s reign as well as the liturgical calendar.
  3. The New Year of Animals, for determining the age of animals, for breeding purposes and tithing.

The minor holiday of Tu B’shvat is the only one of the three still commemorated, and recently has become an eco-holiday, the Jewish equivalent of Earth Day.

There are three modern holidays that have been added to the calendar since 1948: Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day; Yom Ha’zikaron, Israel Memorial Day; and Yom Ha’azma’ut, Israel Independence Day.

15. Why is Purim in the Hebrew Bible and Chanukah is not?

      A: As mentioned above (question #7), the events recounted in the Book of Maccabees took place in 165 BCE, thirty-five years after the latest theorized date for the codification of the Tanakh. The events in Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther) supposedly took place in 537-6 BCE, during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, over three centuries before the codification.

The inclusion of Megillat Esther in the canon was not without controversy, however: God, Jerusalem, Jewish laws, prayer are never mentioned in the recounting of the Purim story. There is also speculation the story was written as justification for the celebration of a pagan holiday, an annual spring celebration of of Marduk (Mordecai) and Ishtar (Esther), which the Israelites brought back to Judea after end of the Babylonian Exile. The story has many parallels with that of Judith (question #10), which was not included in the canon. The explanation may be that the story of Judith is associated with Chanukah, and was not used to legitimize a “new” holiday, which the story of Esther did.

16. If Chanukah is a minor holiday, why is it so widely celebrated?

      A:  Many polls show that the two most widely observed Jewish holidays in the U. S. are Passover and Chanukah. They are also the only holidays which, aside from the addition of some prayers during the daily synagogue prayers, are basically home-centered.

At one time, Chanukah, while celebrated in Jewish homes, was not elevated to the status it has today. One reason, of course, is its proximity to Christmas (questions #72-79). As Jews in the U. S. became more assimilated, they wanted to become more like their Christian neighbors. Jewish children in public schools were required to sing Christmas carols, draw Christmas pictures, exchange Christmas gifts. Schools were decorated with Christmas trees and the winter holiday was called “Christmas vacation.” And, as Christmas became more and more secular in how it was observed, it became easier for Jews to ignore the underlying theological message of Christmas – the birth of the Messiah.

In order to feel as though their children were not missing out on what they saw as an orgy of gift giving, feasting, and celebration, Jews began to incorporate the excesses of Christmas into the observation of Chanukah. In a demonstration of American competitiveness, Jewish kids could then brag to their Christian friends, “You get gifts on one day; we get them for eight.”

17. Are there special synagogue services during Chanukah?

      A: There are no special services, but there are the additions of certain prayers into the daily and Shabbat services, as well as to the Birkat Ha’mazon (Grace after Meals): Al Ha’nissim and Hallel.

     Al Ha’nissim contains a general introductory section that is also added on Purim. A similar version is one of the nightly blessings for lighting the candles (question #41). The second paragraph is a retelling of the Chanukah story. (On Purim, it is a retelling of the deeds of Esther and Mordecai.)

     Al han’issim, ve’al hapurkan, ve’al hagevurot, ve’al hateshuot, ve’al hamilchamot she’asita la’avoteinu, ba’yamim hahem, ba’zeman hazeh.

     “For the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our ancestors in those days, at this time.”

18. Do observant Jews work on Chanukah?

      A:  Yes. There are no restrictions on the kinds of work that can be performed on Chanukah, as there are for major holy days and for Shabbat. (question #13). Work is prohibited only for as long as the candles are burning (typically half-an-hour).