December 2019

Hanukkah 101: A Quick Guide to Its History and Celebration
What is Hanukkah, and how did it develop into the celebration we know today? Uncovering its roots reveals a fascinating narrative from ancient times.

What is Hanukkah, and how did it develop into the celebration we know today? Uncovering its roots reveals a fascinating narrative from ancient times.

Many cultures and religions have a “festival of lights.” Hindus all over the world light lamps, asking Lakshmi for wealth and wisdom during their fall Diwali celebrations. Every Chinese year ends with a Lantern Festival, heralding the coming spring and new year. The Jewish holiday Hanukkah is also called a festival of lights, but there’s much more to it than that. What is Hanukkah, and how did it develop into the celebration we know today? Discovering its roots reveals a fascinating narrative from ancient times.

The Maccabean Revolt

ReformJudaism.org discusses the events behind the Hanukkah story. Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a Greek Seleucid king during the middle of the 2nd century BCE. The Seleucid Empire stretched from western India to modern-day Israel. The Encyclopedia Britannica explains that Antiochus wanted to strengthen Hellenistic cultural influences throughout the region. To solidify power, he appointed Menelaus as Jerusalem’s high priest. The former high priest, Jason, led a revolt against Menelaus and his supporters.

In retaliation, Antiochus invaded Jerusalem and enforced Hellenism. Jewish religious practices were officially forbidden and punishable by death. Antiochus erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple and ordered sacrifices performed in front of an idol in his likeness. These events spurred Judah Maccabeus, a member of a prominent priestly family, to lead a revolt and reclaim the Temple.

Yet Haaretz shares an alternative explanation for the Maccabean revolt. Historians suggest that it was a civil war in Judea, pitting Hellenist Jewish people against traditionalists. Antiochus sent multiple armies to put down the rebellion but was foiled each time. With an attack by King Mithridates I of Parthia in 167 BCE., Antiochus was forced to defend his empire. This allowed the Maccabean rebels to retake Jerusalem and the Temple in 164 BCE.

A Miracle in Jerusalem’s Temple

Curiously, the event that’s central to the Hanukkah holiday doesn’t even appear in I or II Maccabees. The Talmud tells the tale, mentioning that Judah Maccabees’ forces found only one jar of oil left when they reclaimed the Temple. That jar should have only lasted one day, but the Temple’s eternal light burned for eight days while a messenger traveled in search of more oil. These eight days of light are encapsulated in Hanukah’s eight days along with its menorah, a nine-branched candelabra that holds the candles that are lit throughout the celebration.

A Festival of Lights

Hanukkah’s date shifts every year because the Hebrew calendar uses lunar months. The holiday always begins on the 25th day of Kislev, which can fall between early November and late December. Every night during this holiday, one candle is added to the menorah and lit by a servant candle called a shamash. The first candle is placed on the right side, and successive candles are added, moving from right to left. Chabad explains that these lights burn after sunset to bring light into the darkness. Blessings are said while the candles are ignited and to commemorate the Hanukkah miracle.

The lights symbolize the Temple miracle, but fried foods also recall the long-lasting supply of lamp oil. My Jewish Learning mentions that Ashkenazi Jewish people typically fry and serve potato cakes called latkes, while Sephardic Jewish people fry and serve doughnuts. Other central Hanukkah traditions include giving gifts and playing with dreidels, spinning tops emblazoned with four Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hay, and shin. The dreidel’s four letters stand for the phrase “Nes gadol hayah sham,” which translates to “a great miracle happened there.”

A Holiday of Hope 

Like many modern holidays, Hanukkah is a commemoration. Its story focuses on resistance against authoritarianism and religious oppression. The history behind the Maccabean revolt may not yet be clear, but Hanukkah remains symbolic of survival, persistence, and hope.

Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel: The History and Legends Behind a Hanukkah Pastime
The dreidel comes in many different forms and sizes. Alongside the menorah, this spinning top game is one of the most recognizable Hanukkah traditions.

The dreidel comes in many different forms and sizes. Alongside the menorah, this spinning top game is one of the most recognizable Hanukkah traditions.

Spinning the dreidel is a popular game during Hanukkah. Alongside the menorah, this spinning top game is one of the most recognizable Hanukkah traditions. It’s such an integral and memorable custom that some who play with dreidels as kids go on to collect them as adults. Where did this little top come from, and how did it become part of Hanukkah celebrations? The answers to these questions may surprise you.

What Is a Dreidel?

Dreidels come in many different forms and sizes. Chabad explains that most are square or rectangular with four sides and a pointed base. They’re usually made of plastic or wood, but collectible versions can be crafted from silver, bronze, ceramics, glass, crystal, brass, or pewter.

Every dreidel is decorated with four Hebrew letters. However, there are slight differences between those used in Israel and those on dreidels made in other parts of the world. The iCenter for Israel Education clarifies that Israeli dreidels bear the letters nun, gimmel, hay, and pey. These letters stand for “nes gadol hayah po,” which means “a great miracle happened here.” Dreidels outside of Israel are decorated with different letters: nun, gimmel, hay, and shin. These letters stand for “nes gadol hayah sham,” translating as “a great miracle happened there.”

Legends of the Dreidel’s Origins

Chabad retells one common tale that explains the dreidel’s invention. During the middle of the 2nd century B.C.E., Judea was part of the Seleucid Empire ruled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Shortly before the Maccabean revolt, the king had outlawed all Jewish religious practices. Learning the Torah had become a crime punishable by death, Jewish children continued to study it while hiding in caves. When Greek patrols approached, the children would put away their Torah scrolls and play with their spinning tops instead.

Rabbi David Golinkin discusses other explanations for the dreidel’s origins. These include detailed numerological backstories for the four Hebrew letters on the dreidel. Others involved wordplay, and a few insist that they stand for the four classic empires that oppressed the Jewish people: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Did the Dreidel Come From Ireland?

During the early 1500s, English and Irish children played a spinning top gambling game called “totum.” By the 1700s, it was a Christmas pastime called “teetotum.”  The Irish version used a four-sided top with four words: “take all,” “half,” “put down,” and “nothing.” Each player would follow the directions based on how the top landed. Winners took all or half of the pot. “Put down” directed the player to add to the pot. “Nothing” required no action.

Rabbi Golinkin adds that this game made its way to Germany, where the top was decorated with the letters n, g, h, and s. Jewish children eventually learned the game, and Hebrew characters replaced the Roman letters on the top.

Two Names, One Object

Where did the word “dreidel” originate? Merriam-Webster Dictionary explains that it comes from the Yiddish word “dreydl,” derived from the Yiddish verb “dreyen,” which means “to turn.” Yiddish is a fusion of High German and Hebrew, and “dreyen” comes from an older German verb “drǣjen.”

Some people call this top a “sevivon,” a modern Hebrew word taken from the verb “saváv,” meaning “to turn.” The term may have been coined in 1887 by Itamar Ben-Avi, the son of lexicographer Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the first native speaker of modern Hebrew. Israel 21c’s Rachel Neiman mentions that its first printed appearance dates to 1897, with journalist David Isaiah Silberbusch claiming credit for its invention.

More Than Just a Game

Humans have played with spinning tops for thousands of years. In some cultures, these ordinary objects take on deeper meanings. Regardless of the dreidel’s origin, it speaks to joyful celebrations and the strength of the human spirit.

Interesting Facts About Religion in Canada
Quebec recently put a law into place regarding religious expression in public, so it may prove valuable to learn some facts regarding religion in Canada.

Quebec recently put a law into place regarding religious expression in public, so it may prove valuable to learn some facts regarding religion in Canada.

A few months ago, the Canadian province of Quebec put a new law into place regarding religion. The regulation states that no public employees are allowed to wear or display items of religious significance. This move has caused a lot of criticism from the people, with many arguing that the law seems to specifically target Muslim women who are required by religion to wear head coverings while in public. The law has also started a dialogue about religion in Canada and unearthed some interesting facts about how people identify on a religious level.

Take a moment to explore these facts on religious worship in Canada. A little insight may be able to provide you with a greater understanding of current controversial laws and regulations.

Religion Is Less Present

One of the most interesting discoveries unearthed by recent conversations is that religion does not seem to be important for many people. According to a number of studies conducted throughout 2018 and 2019, roughly 64% of adults polled stated that religion seemed to be less important than it was 20 years earlier. Overall, the individuals who provided information for the studies felt that public life was no longer dictated by religion in the ways that it had been when they were younger. The studies do not, however, include facts on whether citizens feel this shift is good or bad.

Christianity Is Still the Top Religion

Recent years have seen a number of news stories centered around the growing Muslim population in Canada. While certain regions may have higher numbers of followers of Islam, the overall consensus is that Christianity is still the predominant religion in the country. A vast majority of citizens identify as either Christian, Catholic, or Protestant. While other religions are growing in popularity throughout Canada, these studies suggest that less than 8% of the population identifies as Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist.

No Opinion

Interestingly, a large number of citizens seem to not identify with any particular religious movement. Studies suggest that there are growing numbers of individuals who refer to themselves as agnostics, atheists, or totally not connected with any religious group. In 1971, only 4% of Canadians identified as religiously unaffiliated. As of 2018, that figure has jumped to 16%. Overall, it seems younger Canadians are more likely to turn away from religious groups than the generations before them.

Few Restrictions

Some nations, like the United States of America, are known for religious troubles. In America, the “separation of church and state” has caused endless laws and regulations to be implemented in order to keep these entities apart. Canada, on the other hand, does not have the same history. Despite the new regulations banning religious symbols, Canada has very few government restrictions on religion. In fact, most organizations are willing to cater to religious individuals.

One example of this comes from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Years ago, the organization changed its uniform policies on religious grounds. According to its bylaws, members of the police are required to wear hats while working. As Sikh men began to apply for the job, an issue arose. Sikh men are required by their religion to wear turbans. To avoid any problems, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police granted Sikh men the ability to wear turbans instead of hats and still be considered in uniform.

Shifting Attitudes 

Religious attitudes in Canada have changed greatly over the last few decades. With new laws being put into place dictating when and where a public worker can display religious symbols, it is important to understand some facts about religion in Canada. In order to help create an environment that is more inclusive to all, give yourself time to understand the current religious landscape in your country.

Jewish Perspectives on Mental Health
Religions haven’t always handled mental illness with compassion and kindness, but how do modern Jewish Canadians deal with such challenges?

Religions haven’t always handled mental illness with compassion and kindness, but how do modern Jewish Canadians deal with such challenges?

The Canadian Mental Health Association states that one in five Canadians is impacted by mental illness each year. With Canada’s estimated 392,000 Jewish people comprising about 1% of the population, many Jewish individuals will also face mental health challenges. Religions haven’t always handled mental illness with compassion and kindness, but how do modern Jewish Canadians deal with such challenges? Answering this question requires an overall look at mental health in Canada and Jewish perspectives on the issue from both the past and present.

Mental Health Issues in Canada

Mental health in Canada is a complex picture. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) estimates around 8% of adults will suffer from major depression and 5% with suffer from anxiety disorders. Even direr is the CMHA’s revelation that at least 50% of Canadians will have experienced mental illness by age 40, but nearly half of individuals dealing with anxiety or depression never seek professional help. While these figures are disturbing, they’re due to many factors, including lack of access to care, stigmas surrounding mental illness, and fear of discrimination.

Historical Jewish Perspectives

My Jewish Learning explains that classical Jewish texts encompass a wide range of viewpoints on mental illness. The Tanakh contains several Hebrew words that are often translated as “madness.” One key word from Deuteronomy is “shigaon,” an antecedent for the modern Yiddish term “meshuggeneh” that means “crazy.” This state of mind is framed as divine punishment for failing to heed God’s word. The Talmud discusses concepts such as mental competency in legal contexts, and the word “shoteh” denotes someone who is severely detached from reality.

On the other hand, it’s been suggested figures such as King David, Job, Hannah, and Elijah may have struggled with depression. These individuals are usually depicted in a more compassionate light. Chabad mentions the term “machalat hanefesh,” which refers to mental illness and is translated as “illness of the soul.” While it may not accurately reflect the involvement of the brain and body, this phrase can describe the depths of suffering that people experience.

Fighting Stigmas, Finding Answers

Nearly every religious or cultural community contains negative beliefs about mental illness. Some examples in contemporary English words include “crazy,” “idiot,” or “nutcase.” Dr. Neal A. Lester at Tolerance.org breaks down how these are damaging and ableist, describing the ways in which they can potentially dehumanize people with mental health struggles.

While similar stigmas exist within Jewish communities, there also seems to be a greater overall openness towards mental health challenges and solutions. My Jewish Learning discusses a few studies revealing that Jewish people tended to exhibit more positive attitudes towards counseling, psychotherapy, and other forms of professional mental health assistance. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism published the Reform Movement’s position on mental health, which calls for several objectives in government, synagogues, religious schools, youth programs, and communities to help those with mental health challenges:

  • Destigmatizing mental illness
  • Training and education
  • Greater community support
  • Better access to housing and care
  • Ensuring fair treatment, safety, and legal rights of mentally ill prisoners
  • Ending workplace discrimination
  • Increased focus on prevention and treatment

Changes are occurring within Orthodox Jewish communities as well. One key objective is removing harmful stigmas, which can lead to isolation and secrecy. Advocacy groups are taking the lead, such as Relief, which researches providers and offers referrals, and Chazkeinu, offering peer-led support for Jewish women.

Chemlah: Compassion and Mercy

While stigmas surrounding mental illness still remain, many Canadian Jewish communities strive to eliminate them and help those impacted receive the assistance they need. “Chemlah” is a Hebrew word that can reflect compassion in a divine sense, especially towards those who are vulnerable. Such compassion is essential to bring about understanding, support, and healing.