Chanukah is celebrated this year from Sunday night, Dec. 18, through Monday, Dec. 26, at sunset, corresponding to the Hebrew calendar days of 25 Kislev through 2 Tevet.
Chanukah is so interesting, isn’t it? It’s the easiest of all our Jewish holidays to celebrate. No construction of an outdoor home, as we do on Sukkot, with wood beams and rooftops lined with bamboo sticks (East Coast) or palm fronds (West Coast). No need to fast for 25 hours as we do on Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, or to attend services for six or 10-plus hours as we do respectively on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. No need to turn the kitchen upside down, schlep pots and pans and flatware and dishes to and from the basement (East Coast) or the garage (West Coast) or the kids’ bathtub, and then to line almost everything in the kitchen in aluminum foil as we do on Passover. All you have to do is light a candle or two or nine. You sing a song or two (America) or eight or 10 (Israel), and you wonder for a week whether any of the carols they play in the mall can be adapted with Hebrew lyrics. Perhaps you even contemplate that you never met anyone who made a dreidel out of clay, although the plastic ones may one day be banned in California.
Chanukah is fascinating because, since it is so incredibly easy, more American Jews “celebrate it” than they do any other Jewish holiday. The most assimilated, Hellenized, Judaically ignorant, and self-mocking Jew or pseudo-Jew can stop three minutes per year for Chanukah. Intermarried Doug Emhoff and his Kamala celebrate the message of Matisyahu the Hasmonean, high Kohen, whose sons fought the Hellenist assimilationists to liberate the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), by lighting a candle in a menorah for the White House public relations team. In the Emhoff-Kamala background: a Christmas tree the size of Goliath, with more Christmas regalia on the Emhoff-Kamala mantle above the fireplace. So, anyone apparently can “do Chanukah.” Even non-Jews. All it takes is a few candles and a match. That still leaves plenty of time for Christmas dinner (for assimilated Jews like Elena Kagan and Emhoff, at a Chinese non-kosher restaurant), yule logs, Santa, Christmas breakfast, opening Christmas presents, and Christmas lunch.
In part, with everyone else in America centering their mall shopping, their amusement-park visiting, and even their television-watching on “the other winter holiday,” assimilated American Jews do not want to miss out on the winter wonderland. So, they have an Adam Sandler Chanukah, where two non-Jews together make a “fine looking Jew” and the 25 percent bloodline of a famous non-Jewish actor is “not too shabby.”
Well, here’s my Chanukah reminiscence. All in a rabbi’s life.
Back in 2006, I was hospitalized with an “Appendicitis for the Ages.” If you ever wondered how bad it really is if your appendix actually starts leaking before they take it out, wonder no more. It is pretty, pretty, pretty bad. By the time my wife forced me into the car at 3 a.m. — the earliest hours of the morning that, for some reason, we call “the middle of the night” — I quietly knew this was bad. We got to the hospital. It did not take long for the emergency room people to realize that, in the words of the triage expert: “Wow, Rabbi, this emergency room typically is jam-packed with people who have sniffles and coughs. Tonight, for the first time in weeks, thanks to you, we finally have a real life-or-death emergency here in the emergency room!” I was honored.
I ended up in a bit of peril and was stuck in the hospital for several days. They soon told me that the hospital had these very sweet and kind undergraduate volunteers from a nearby Christian Bible college who would come by to help with the patients, “Good Samaritans” trying to assist in little ways without inadvertently killing anyone.
After several days spent supine, I was itching to resume walking, and they assigned this incredibly darling guy to help me ambulate. He was so amazingly excited to learn that he, a Christian Bible student, had been assigned to a Bible-learned full-fledged Orthodox rabbi with a yarmulka who actually was studied in the book that this fellow called the “Old Testament” (but that we Jews call the “Torah,” the “Chumash,” the “Pentateuch,” the “Five Books of Moses,” or the “Artscroll with the blue cover”). As he started walking alongside me down the hall, he thanked me profusely for giving him the opportunity to bless a rabbi. He explained that G-d said to Abraham in Genesis (B’reishit) 12:3 that He will bless those who bless Abraham’s children, so this nice guy always had wanted so much to bless any Jew. And now, he got himself a bonus — double points: an Orthodox rabbi.
So, we walked and schmoozed. And then he asked me a question whose Judaic erudition, coming from a fellow at a Christian Bible college, actually quite impressed me: “Rabbi, have you ever heard of Matisyahu? I am absolutely fixated on Matisyahu and would like to know all I can about him.”
I was so impressed. As it says on the Chanukah dreidel acrostic: Ness Gadol Haya Poh — A Great Miracle Happened Here. So I told him all about Matisyahu:
“Matisyahu was the Kohen Gadol — the High Priest — of the Jewish People…”
Suddenly, my volunteer helper interrupted me: “Did you say that Matisyahu is the High Priest of the Jewish People?”
“Yes,” I answered, “what you would call the ‘High Priest,’ or, as we prefer to say, the ‘Kohen Gadol.’ In a way, you might say he was a king without a crown.”
“Please continue,” he eagerly urged me. “Wow! Matisyahu was like a king without a crown! I can hardly wait to tell my dormitory friends!”
I was bemused but continued:
“Well, Matisyahu was based in Israel, in a city called Modi’in. We Jews were under Greek domination, and they had conquered our land and defiled our Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. And now they were coercing us, at pain of death, to abandon our Torah laws and values. In an incident that is probably the most famous and retold event in Matisyahu’s entire life, it is said that the local Greek occupation forces compelled all the local Jews to gather at a central location, where the leading Greek official demanded that some Jew in the group eat a piece of forbidden pork or ham or bacon. One of those pig foods. As you know from Bible college, we Jews are forbidden from eating pig.
“Well, one Jewish guy in the group apparently was looking to advance his status with the Greeks, so he stepped forward and proudly proclaimed that he would eat it. And, at that juncture, Matisyahu stepped forward, unsheathed a long sword, and he slew the guy dead.” (READ MORE from Dov Fischer: The Chanukah of Fools)
My helper stopped in his tracks. We were two-thirds of the way down the hall. “Matisyahu had a sword? He used the sword? Matisyahu killed a guy with a sword? Just for eating a piece of pork?”
I nodded affirmatively. “Yep. That’s Matisyahu.” I explained the context. “We Jews are quite peaceful and do not go around slaying people, nor do we even stop other people at the supermarket (East Coast — Key Food; West Coast — Ralphs; St. Louis — Schnucks; Louisville — Winn-Dixie; everywhere else — Piggly Wiggly) to stop them from buying Oscar Mayer sausages. Rather, this was a moment in time when the Jewish people faced utter destruction, and we were on the brink of not only physical catastrophe but spiritual destruction. It was not about a single guy eating non-kosher food but about a defiant apostate signaling publicly to the Greeks that all the Jews could be terrorized into abandoning our G-d and Torah, into abandoning not only our kosher laws but all of Judaism. It was a moment in time, in a different context from today.”
Our walk came to an end. I was feeling pretty tired by now, but my new Friend for a Day was utterly breathless: “I cannot thank you enough, Rabbi. I will always remember this walk — as long as I live. I thought I knew a bunch about Matisyahu, but wait until I tell my friends that Matisyahu killed people with a sword, especially Jews who eat pork or ham. Wow!”
I injected that he should be aware that Matisyahu planted the seeds that led to Jewish freedom and the Chanukah miracle. He had five grown sons. The most famous, Yehudah HaMaccabee — Judah the Maccabee — was the hero who ultimately led the revolt that drove the Greeks out of Israel, liberated the Holy Temple from Greek desecration, and revived the daily lighting of the menorah in the Temple. It was that rekindling, when there was not enough kindling oil to last more than a day, that led to the great miracle of Chanukah, as only a single day’s supply of oil sustained eight days, enough time for more sacred oil to be produced in accordance with Judaic law.
He paused and asked, “Did you just say, Rabbi, that Matisyahu has five fully grown sons, and one of them freed Israel from the Greeks and caused Israeli independence?”
I was back at my bed, quite exhausted from my first walk since the surgery, and I think I nodded affirmatively. He was such a sweet fellow, and we wished each other well.
That night my wife, Ellen of blessed memory, visited me at the hospital after her long day of work. I told her about this really nice guy from a Christian Bible college, about our walk and our conversation. She started giggling in the infectious way that only she could. Once she started, I could not but laugh hysterically, too. She always did that to me. And then I caught my breath and asked her, “El, what exactly are we laughing about?”
She then asked me: “Dov, you are so enthralled with the music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, MBD, Safam, and Garth Brooks that you never follow other popular music. You don’t realize there is a pretty popular reggae singer out there named ‘Matisyahu,’ right?”
“Nope, Ellen. Never heard of him.”
“Well,” she said. “Now that Bible college has heard of him — and, oh, have they!”