When did Hanukkah become important to American Jews?

Depends what you mean by “religious”. Sukkot is one of the 3 major agricultural festivals specified in the Torah (the other 2 being Passover and Shavuot–the Feast of Weeks), and as such carries much more religious weight than holidays like Chanukah or Purim. It’s a harvest festival, so it definitely has that Thanksgiving vibe, but it is also traditionally associated with messianic prophecies. I think the Christian tradition that Jesus was greeted by people waving palm fronds is probably related to the Sukkot practice of shaking a palm frond (lulav) along with myrtle, willow and etrog (a type of citrus). The sukkah itself is both a reminder of living in the fields during harvest time, and of the Tabernacle in the desert used during the post-Exodus wandering of the Hebrews.

Sukkot is not often observed by purely secular Jews (if they celebrate any holidays, they’ll be Passover and Chanukah), but nearly everyone I know who’s affiliated with a synagogue, independent of denomination, does something for Sukkot.

Incidentally, one reason I’ve heard that Chanukah is eight days long is that Sukkot was so important that when the Temple was rededicated after the Maccabean revolt, they performed the Sukkot sacrifices months late. Sukkot is eight days long (including the final festival day of Shemini Atzeret), and is the only Torah-specified festival of that length.


Here’s a note I haven’t seen mentioned yet upthread.

As I’ve always understood it, Chanukkah (however you want to spell it) was never a very significant Jewish holiday until fairly modern times. Historically, it was always a minor footnote among holidays. The reason being, that Chanukkah isn’t a Biblical story – it’s not in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) nor elsewhere in the Old Testament.

The Chanukkah story originates in the Book of Maccabees (specifically, I Maccabees IIRC), which is part of the Apocrypha. This collection of books, while part of the Catholic scriptural canon, is not part of Scripture recognized by Jews or Protestants. The extra-Biblical origin of Chanukkah relegated it to a minor status.

As others have noted, it became a major Jewish festival in fairly modern times, largely to “compete” with Christmas. Some have noted upthread that this was driven by rabbis or other Jewish leaders, to combat the “Christianization” of Chanukkah. I haven’t heard that theory, but it sounds plausible enough. I always thought it was basically driven by the children who envied the Christmas festivities, gift-giving in particular.

Is it just a coincidence that it falls around the winter solstice and that it’s the “Festival of Light”?

Well before that. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Ohio in the 1960s, and Hanukkah gift giving was already well established practice as far back as I can remember. The Jewish kids next door were showing off their presents like two weeks before we got any.

Possibly. I don’t know how the date is selected. But the Hebrew calender is a weird one based on solar and lunar events and particular dates don’t line up well with individual solar events.

Still, it is still just a festival in Judaism, not a holiday (or holy day) as Passover is. It doesn’t have increased religious significance in Judaism, just an increased cultural significance in the same way as Christmas.

Couple things wrong there. First one I’m not sure how tight you want to word it, but the Jewish calendar–based on a lunar one–goes through conniptions to nudge itself here and there in line with solar events, based on the seasons in Jerusalem and old Israel. They don’t want Succot, for example, an Agricultural/Religous festival, occurring in the middle of winter. The Islamic calendar is entirely lunar, so holidays will float from year to year.

Second, Passover is a Festival, with Shavout (Weeks) and Sukkot (Booths). You had to be in Jerusalem or be square.

Your right about Passover. That was a misplaced thought on my part.

But the calender issue is real. It can get 30 days away from solar events before an adjustment. Christians have the same issue with Easter. That wouldn’t be considered to correspond with the spring equinox. Christmas is obviously based on the Saturnalia, a solar event.

I thought Easter was the Sunday after Passover.

Much more complicated than that.

Yes. It commemorates events recorded in history, specifically relating to a war that ended in 167 BC, specifically a miracle during the rededication of the temple on 25 Kislev, 3595 (Hebrew reckoning) where a quantity of oil that should have lasted one day, last eight days (the time needed to get more oil).

From the miracle of the oil lamp burning for eight nights, thence the ritual of burning candles for 8 nights and the custom of eating foods cooked in oil; ancient historian Flavius Josephus states the origin of the name, “the Festival of Lights” :

Nay, they [The Macabees] were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.–Jewish Antiquities XII

Plus I feel safe in saying that Jews did not notice the solstice for the first time in their year 3595.

Perhaps it is because I am a convert, but I wonder if some commissioned officer assigned to do inventory overlooked a barrel of oil and didn’t want to get in trouble by admitting it. :slight_smile:

Exactly; I was just thinking of that word before I clicked your link: “computus”. Can that be used as the name of the guy that performs such calculations?

Didn’t they call the (all female) people who input data (or did more manipulations) to the early ballistics calculators computers? Or this might be some contaminated dust from my mental cobwebs.

The war was a real event. The story of the oil was added later. (At least two centuries later.)

It’s no more a coincidence that Hanukah is celebrated with lights around Winter Solstice than it is a coincidence that Christmas has lights and is around Winter Solstice. In both cases you had people already doing something, lighting candles around Winter Solstice, and prevailing culture repurposed the action to a new mythology (and no offense intended to religious Christians, “mythology” does not necessarily mean fictional).


I don’t see any cites in the site you linked to that offer any proof that the miracle of the oil was a later addition. He just asserts it, as far as I can tell.

There’s no proof that it wasn’t added later. The earliest mention of the miracle of the oil is in the Gemara, and earlier written sources which discuss the origin of the eight days of Chanukah give different explanations.

Leo Bloom, yes, there was a job called “computer.” It existed from the mid-seventeenth century until about the 1950’s, when computers (in the modern sense) made the job unnecessary. The people who did this job were entirely men until the late nineteenth century. The job switched from being entirely men to being almost entirely women at about the same time as the same thing happened to the job of secretary. Before this change, being a computer (or a secretary) could lead to a higher job. Afterwards, it couldn’t. The early computer programmers were often drawn from the women who had been computers (in the old sense):


There were even college-level vocational math classes that specifically focused on doing this kind of computational work. Years ago, I was in the habit of collecting old vintage math textbooks (that I typically found in musty used book stores). I had a Trig textbook from 1914, for example. Older books had much greater depth to them than more modern lower-division college math texts, IMHO.

But I digress. One book I found was a textbook for such a computational math class. It focused on operating the mechanical machines that were common then, and on scheduling the operations for them. If the problem involved many factors to be multiplied or divided or raised to strange fractional powers, there were rules of “efficiency” for how to do it all and in what order. This might entail converting numbers to their logarithms (possibly using the old -10 notation), arranging these into a convenient chart or worksheet to be added and subtracted in some optimal order.

The old machines might require two numbers, being added, to be entered into the machine differently. The initial number entered one way, the second number another way. To discuss these differences, there was vocabulary that is largely forgotten now. Two numbers to be added were called the addend and the augend. In a subtraction problem, the numbers were the minuend and the subtrahend. For multiplications, you had the multiplier and the multiplicand. And everybody knows that the numbers in a division are the divisor and the dividend. All this terminology used to be really important, for the “computers” who spent all day doing it and had to be really swift, efficient, and accurate.

This was a complete full-semester class (or maybe a full year class), just like the touch-typing classes that were so popular as well. But this was even more technical, and very heavy on the computational math. It’s largely a lost art these days.

ETA: This has what to do with Chanukkah again?

Uh, we Jews had all those jobs? :wink:

The complicated date computations of Easter. Which reflects on the dates in the Hebrew calender such as when Hanukah is. Which align with solar events like the solstice precisely, but will stay in the same approximate time period. Which doesn’t fully answer the question of Hanukah being related to the winter solstice originally when the date was decided on. Except it is related in modern times in the sense of the new importance of Hanukah based on the modern commercialization of Christmas, which was timed to correspond to the Saturnalia. It’s the lattice of coincidence that lies over everything. Shrimp, or plate of shrimp.

“See, Jon, the trouble with the Jewish religion is that it has no pizzazz. For goodness sakes, your biggest holiday celebrates fuel economy!”
John Oliver to Jon Stewart, The Daily Show