Is Chanukah a “Zionist” Festival?

Dear Friends,


The question of whether Chanukah is a “Zionist” festival cannot be discussed without defining the term “Zionism” – a term which began to be used by the World Zionist Organization which later founded the State of Israel. The term “Zionism” does not appear in the Torah, and it was coined by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, who became the Secretary General of the World Zionist Organization. (He later left the organization for reasons which are explained in Note 3 which appears at the end of this letter.) The term “Zionism” as defined by this organization does not just mean love of Zion, as many of the opponents of the W.Z.O. were Torah-committed Jews with an intense love of Zion; moreover, some of these opponents were involved in the renewal of Jewish life in Zion even before the W.Z.O. was founded. In future letters, I hope to discuss their pioneering efforts and in what ways their ideology and goals differed from the ideology and goals of the World Zionist Organization.


To understand the definition of “Zionism” according to the W.Z.O., we will begin with the following resolution which this organization adopted in 1911: “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” As we discussed in previous letters, the majority of the leaders of the W.Z.O. sought to have nationalism replace the Torah as the raison d’etre of our people. They felt that “land” and “language” are what makes us into a nation, as they rejected the traditional Jewish view that our nation is to be defined by the spiritual ideal and mission of the Torah and its path of mitzvos. Since our historic homeland was Zion, the majority of these Zionist leaders felt that our nation has no purpose without regaining a national home in Zion with political sovereignty. They therefore used the term “Zionism” to refer to the ideology and goal of their movement. This definition caused them to refer to their religious opponents, including those living in Zion, as “non-Zionists.”


Their Torah-committed opponents felt that a term called “Zionism” should be based on the traditional definition of Zion as the spiritual center of our people, for Zion is the place where we are to develop an ethical and holy society, so that the Shechinah – Divine Presence – can dwell in our midst (see Note 1); moreover, in this way, our society can serve as a universal model for all peoples. Some of these Torah-committed Jews therefore argued that they were the true Zionists, and that their secular opponents were actually non-Zionists.


According to the definition of the secular Zionists, is Chanukah a “Zionist” festival? Our discussion will begin with their statement, “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” As the following summary of the Chanukah story reveals, “religion” is the underlying theme of the Chanukah story:


A major stream of ancient Greek thought glorified the human being and the gratification of the human being’s desires. Greek culture therefore developed a mythology of various gods and goddesses that represented all human cravings and lusts. While Judaism stressed that human beings should serve Hashem – the Compassionate and Life-Giving One – Who created the human being in the Divine image, most Greeks served the lustful or greedy gods and goddesses that they created in their own image. For example, they worshiped a promiscuous goddess named “Aphrodite” – a goddess that satisfied the sexual lusts and fantasies of male mortals and gods.
Earlier forms of paganism stressed the frailty and the insignificance of the human being; however, the pagan Greeks stressed the significance and power of the human being. The Jews also stressed the significance of the human being, but in their view, the true significance of the human being is found in the human ability to emulate the Divine compassion, love, and justice.


The Greeks venerated physical beauty; thus, Greek art and the Greek gymnasiums glorified the youthful human body. The Jews, however, focused on holiness – the consecration and dedication of the human body and its drives to serving the compassionate and life-giving Divine purpose.
After Alexander the Greek conquered much of the world, his successors – who ruled various parts of his divided empire – strived to impose Greek culture and philosophy upon the conquered peoples. Initially, they were successful in their mission, and the conquered peoples offered little resistance to the cultural imperialism of the Greeks. In fact, when the Syrian-Greeks took control of the Land of Zion, there were a number of wealthy and influential Jews who encouraged the new rulers to impose Greek culture on the Jewish people. These “Hellenist” Jews wanted to “modernize” their people by having them adopt the prevalent Greek culture. Both the Syrian-Greeks rulers and their Jewish allies felt that the continued existence of the Jewish people’s spiritual culture was a threat to the western, Greek culture which was “conquering” the Middle East. These rulers therefore outlawed the study of Torah and the fulfillment of certain mitzvos including Shabbos and the Covenant of Circumcision; moreover, they imposed the death penalty upon those who violated these edicts.


Many loyal Jews secretly studied Torah and fulfilled the outlawed mitzvos. Our tradition records that Jewish women were often the most courageous in resisting these attempts to destroy the spiritual life of the Jewish people, and their courage helped to inspire the Jewish men. For example, it was often the women who had the courage to circumcise their sons.


The Syrian Greeks also pressured the Jews to give up their belief in the One Creator of all life and adopt paganism. They therefore turned the Holy Temple in Jerusalem into a pagan center of worship which included orgies, and hogs were offered on the Temple Altar to one of their pagan deities.


The Chashmonai family of Kohanim (priests) led a rebellion against this attempt to destroy the Jewish heritage, and Mattisyahu, the patriarch of the family, issued the following proclamation: “Whoever is zealous for the Torah and is steadfast in the Covenant, let him follow me!” This family of Kohanim became known as the “Maccabees.” According to some opinions, the Hebrew letters of “Maccabee” are composed of the initial letters of the following biblical verse (Exodus 15:11) which was inscribed on the banner of the Chashmonai family: “Who is like You among the powers, Hashem!”
In the initial stage of their rebellion, the Maccabees and their followers fled to the mountains in the Judean desert, where they hoped to be able to study and fulfill the Torah. When the Syrian-Greek army pursued them in the mountains, the Maccabees issued a call to the Jewish people to resist the Greeks with force, and a new Jewish army was formed under their leadership. The following biblical quotes can help us to understand the spiritual nature of their struggle:


“For a mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light" (Proverbs 6:23), and “The soul of the human being is the lamp of Hashem” (Proverbs 20:27).


These Kohanim were fighting in order to protect the Torah, the Divine light; moreover, they were fighting to protect the mitzvos which serve as lamps for the Divine light.  In addition, they were fighting to protect the soul – the lamp of the Divine light within the human being.
The small, but courageous Jewish army began to defeat the large Syrian-Greek army, which included Hellenist Jews who were fighting against their own people. After a long and difficult struggle, the Maccabees and their followers succeeded in driving the Syrian-Greeks from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.


At this stage, the Jewish people had not yet regained political independence in Zion; moreover, parts of Jerusalem and most of the countryside were still under the control of the Syrian Greeks and the Hellenist Jews. The leading Torah sages, however, decided to establish at that stage of the struggle a festival of celebration which become known as Chanukah.


The liberation of the Temple was not the only reason for the declaration of the new festival. After liberating the Temple and removing the idols, the Maccabees wanted to immediately restore the tradition of lighting the Temple Menorah, but all they could find was one small vial of pure olive oil. As the Talmud records (Shabbos 21b), the Syrian-Greeks had contaminated all the flasks of oil that were in the Sanctuary. The Maccabees searched and found only one flask of pure olive oil that had the seal of the “Kohen Gadol” – High Priest. The quantity of oil was only enough for one day, yet, to the amazement of the loyal Jews who had gathered in the Temple, it continued to burn for eight days! This gave the people the opportunity to prepare fresh pure oil.


The sages felt that this was a miracle. And this miracle conveyed the following message for future generations of our people:


No matter how severe the darkness, the Divine light will continue to glow until the whole world will eventually be infused with its light.


The sages therefore established the Festival of “Chanukah” – a term which refers to “dedication” – for the Temple of Zion and the People of Zion could once again be dedicated to the task of illuminating the world with the light of the Compassionate and Life-Giving One.


We now can begin to answer the question: Is Chanukah a “Zionist” festival?” If “Zionism has nothing to do with religion,” then the religious Festival of Chanukah is not a true “Zionist” festival. What makes this festival even more distant from the dominant ideology of the World Zionist Organization is that it is not even a celebration of our national independence in Zion, as the festival was established before we regained our political independence; moreover, when we later regained our political independence in Zion, no festival was declared!


There are, however, Jewish men and women who are loyal to the spiritual definition of Zion:


 Zion is the place where we are to develop an ethical and holy society, so that the Shechinah – Divine Presence – can dwell in our midst; moreover, in this way, our society can serve as a universal model for all peoples.


From this perspective, Chanukah is truly a “Zionist” holiday.



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings and Comments:


1. The opening verse of the haftorah – portion from the prophets – which we chant on the Shabbos of Chanukah contains the following Divine promise:


“Sing and rejoice O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst, spoke Hashem.” (Zechariah 2:14)


“I will dwell in your midst” – I will place My Shechinah in your midst. (Targum)


2. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato was a leading sage of the 17th century, and in his classical work, Derech Hashem, he discusses the deeper significance of the holy days of the Torah, as well as the holy days which were later established by the Prophets and/or Sages of Israel, such as Purim and Chanukah. He writes:


“On each of these special days, something happened whereby at this time a great tikun (rectification) was accomplished and a great Light shone. The Highest Wisdom decreed that on every anniversary of this period, a counterpoint of its original Light should shine forth, and the results of its tikun renewed to those who accept it.” ( Derech Hashem – The Way of God, Part 4, Chapter 7).


Feldheim published an English translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. For information, visit:   .


3. As we mentioned, the term “Zionism” was coined by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, who became the Secretary General of the World Zionist Organization. He later began to question the movement’s stress on political goals, and he felt that there needed to be greater emphasis on the cultural strengths of the Jewish people.


In 1898, he left the Zionist movement in order to become involved with secular activists who focused on strengthening Jewish communities in the Diaspora and who viewed the Yiddish language as the basis of Ashkenazic Jewish culture. He then developed an inner awareness of the spiritual goal of the Jewish people, and he returned to the path of the Torah. He began to challenge the modern paganism of his era, but he also challenged Torah-observant Jews to renew their commitment to the messianic and revolutionary vision of the Torah through developing holy and holistic communities. His activism became inspired by Torah, and he became the Secretary General of Agudath Israel. This gifted leader had previously dedicated his life to strengthening organizations that sought to secularize our people, and he now began to dedicate his life to strengthening an organization that sought to spiritually renew our people.


3. Some of the information in the above letter is from “Chanukah – Its History, Observance, and Significance” (Mesorah Publications). For information, visit:   .

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