In the discussion of Chanukkah that begins in Tractate Shabbat, the Gemara asks as its first question, "Ma'i chanukkah? What is Chanukkah?" Apparently, there was some confusion even two thousand years ago about what this popular holiday is all about.
There is no simple answer to the question, because, like most such questions, we need to know “who’s asking?” At its origin as a Jewish festival, Chanukkah celebrated the military victory of the Hasmoneans over the Hellenized Syrians. By rabbinic times, it had become a time of celebrating the miracle of the scant oil lasting for eight days. In medieval times, the message of Chanukkah morphed into a desire for revenge against our oppressors. In modem times, we celebrated our faith in an empowering God. And in contemporary times, Chanukkah has become a festival of religious tolerance and economic stimulus.
Honestly, it is enough to make you crazy. Every time you think that you have an answer, something else pops up. Compare, for example, the hymn Ma’oz Tzur that has become a recognized part of the lighting of candles and holiday gatherings. The original is a catalog of indignities heaped upon us by Pharaoh, Haman, Antiochus and Barbarossa (!), among others. The. medieval author calls on God to avenge the spilled blood of the people. But when it gets translated into English by American Jews after the Civil War, it is a utopian song that envisions a time “which will see all men free, tyrants disappearing.”
So what do we celebrate on these eight nights ahead? The answer I suggest might seem a little peculiar: Chanukkah celebrates the ability of Jews to reimagine our tradition in light of our circumstances.
You see, it seems that even the story of the Maccabees is a riff on an older tradition. The Talmud makes note of two holidays that are a part of their culture-- Kalenda and Satuma-- that are traced by legend all the way back to Adam and Eve. As they notice the hours of daylight dwindling, they lit bonfires to restore light to the skies. Those holidays became pagan observances, and the rabbis went to great lengths to distinguish Chanukkah from them (in fact, that may be why candles may not be placed in a circle that resembles a bonfire).
In every generation there is a sense of encroaching darkness. Whether it is physical or political oppression, the loss of a sense of God’s presence, or the neglect of human rights, we all need reassurance that the days will be filled again with light. Chanukkah allows us to celebrate the renewal of brightness in a time of gloom, and the eclectic collection of customs and traditions reminds us that others have survived their winters and made it back to spring.
So, ma‘i chanukkah? It is what we make of it.