Last time, I left you with a question. I pointed out that as best as we can tell, the original celebration of Hanukkah was a Temple festival celebration: more specifically, it was a celebration of the rededication of the Temple altar in Jerusalem, after the Temple had been defiled by pagan practices during the reign of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV.
What was this first celebration like? Well, we might look to the book of First Maccabees to find out. This books was written by one or more Jewish authors after the successful revolt against Antiochus IV, probably in Hebrew, and it covers the period from the conquest of Israel by Alexander the Great through the first 30 years following the revolt. This book is not part of the Hebrew Bible (it is included in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles, but not in the Protestant Bible), but it is nevertheless a book that most Jews today consider to be historically trustworthy. And as I described in the last post, the book describes the first Hanukkah as an eight-day celebration of the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple:
At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned [the Temple], it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and furnished them with doors. There was very great gladness among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was removed.
After that first celebration, the Jewish leadership decided to make Hanukkah an annual holiday, where “the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days.” But how did this initial festival of special Temple sacrifices become the Hanukkah we Jews know today, a holiday we celebrate mostly at home, where we exchange gifts, light candles each night, eat latkes (potato pancakes) or sufganiyot (jelly donuts), and play dreidel …
A friend recently asked me, how do you play dreidel? A dreidel is a four-sided top, with Hebrew letters on each side: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hay) and ש (Shin), which stand for “נס גדול היה שם” (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham) – “a great miracle happened there”. (In Israel, the fourth side of most dreidels is inscribed with the letter פ (Pei), for Poh—”A great miracle happened here.”) These letters also describe the basic action of the dreidel game. Nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht (“nothing”), Hei stands for halb (“half”), Gimel for gants (“all”), and Shin for shtel ayn (“put in”). To play, each player starts with an equal number of chocolate coins covered in gold foil, and each player puts one coin into the pot. If you spin a gimel, you win the pot. If you spin a hay, you win half the pot. The game ends when the players eat the stakes, and there’s nothing left to play for. At least, that’s how it worked in my family.
And what does this have to do with a holiday where Jews originally offered sacrifices to celebrate the rededication of the Temple? The answer is the same as what evergreen trees, wreaths, egg nog and strings of holiday lights have to do with the birth of the baby Jesus. Where did we get these traditions? We borrowed them from somewhere else.
Where did dreidel come from? One popular Jewish story is that it goes back to the days of Antiochus IV, who prohibited Jews from studying Torah. What did the Jews do in reaction? They continued to study Torah … but they also carried a dreidel. In case a study session was raided by the soldiers of Antiochus IV, the Jews would hide their Torah, take out their dreidel and pretend to be gambling instead of studying. (Forgive my skepticism, but these soldiers would have had to be pretty stupid to be duped by such a trick.)
Some scholars think that dreidel is a recent Hanukkah addition, one we Jews borrowed in the 16th century from the European children’s game of teetotum. Like dreidel, teetotum is played with a spinning top. In one German version of the game, the letters used on the top were G for gantz (“all”), H for halb (“half”), N for nicht (“nothing”), and S for stell ein (“put in”). Sound familiar? All the Jews needed to do was to substitute Hebrew letters for their German counterparts, and the Hanukkah game of dreidel was born. (To make the teetotum connection even more interesting, teetotum was a game that Christian children played during Christmas. Was the game brought into Hanukkah by Jewish children in order to bring a little bit of Christmas cheer into their Jewish homes? And did the parents and the rabbis seize upon this Gentile game to teach a Jewish lesson?)
But in all likelihood, the game of dreidel has older roots than this. I’ve already mentioned the similarity between Hanukkah and the Greek-Roman celebration of Saturnalia. What was Saturnalia? It was the favorite holiday of the Roman year. Admittedly, there’s a great deal about Saturnalia that bears no relationship to Hanukkah: Saturnalia featured mischief making, singing naked, and a great deal of drinking. But we can see strong similarities between Saturnalia and Hanukkah. People gave gifts, in particular wax candles. Shiny gold coins were featured in some rituals (evidently, the original Santa Claus also left gifts of gold coins). Gambling was allowed in public, and this was the only time of year when slaves could gamble. The gambling game of choice was probably dice and not a spinning top, but coins (I imagine, gold coins) were often the stakes. Also, Saturnalia was a lamp-lighting holiday, where (like Hanukkah) an increasing number of lamps were lit each day. Some scholars say that the Saturnalia-Hanukkah similarities are no coincidence, that the first century BCE King Herod purposely introduced Saturnalia practices into Hanukkah.
OK. I grant you, I can’t prove any of this. Maybe Moses played dreidel. Maybe the Christians got teetotum from the Jews. Maybe people naturally and logically celebrate festivals of light around the shortest and darkest days of the year.
But my thinking is, there’s nothing wrong with Jews borrowing traditions from Christians, and Christians borrowing them from Jews, and Christians and Jews borrowing them from pagans. Why not share? It seems to threaten some, that maybe not everything in their religion comes straight from the command of G-d. The truth is, we don’t practice religion in a vacuum. We are influenced by the cultures around us. For example, Biblical scholars know that the Babylonian, Phoenician, and Hebrew creation accounts share much in common. But that doesn’t mean that the Bible “got” its creation story from the Babylonians. It’s more like, Genesis is a reaction to the Babylonian creation story. You Babylonians say this, and we have something to say in response.
Maybe I’m just a dialogue guy, but I like the idea of religious borrowing. (I oppose the idea of religious appropriation. Someday, I may have to draw a line between these two practices.) For example: a friend recently had me take a closer look at the holiday of Kwanzaa. Did you know that a part of Kwanzaa is the lighting of candles—an extra candle each day for the seven days of Kwanzaa? I didn’t know this. Did Kwanzaa borrow this practice from Hanukkah? I don’t know, but I hope so. Better from us than the Romans!
What do you think about the sharing of religious practices?