A Hanukkah menorah in Israel glows with the light of olive oil, not candles.
A Hanukkah menorah in Israel glows with the light of olive oil, not candles. Dana Friedlander for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism
We live in a time when Thanksgiving Thursday competes with Black Friday (Systemic Racism?), Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday, and Clear Out the Inbox from Yesterday’s 250 Emailed Charity Solicitations Wednesday. Amid all this, commercialism dominates a season when holiness should prevail.

It exists likewise in the way Western commercialism has ruined much of Hannukah, much as commercialism and the race for a fast buck have made a mockery of other preciously spiritual rites of Judaism like the bar mitzvah.

The words “Bar Mitzvah” mean “Son of the (Divinely Ordained) Commandment.” At age 13, an age when many boys start showing signs of physical (if not intellectual) maturing — first facial hairs, deepening of the voice, and such — a boy is deemed in Judaism now to be past the excuse that “he is only a child.” No, he is not a man yet. He yet has a long journey ahead. But his mistakes and pranks no longer may be disregarded as those of a “child.” It now is time for him to assume and live by Personal Responsibility that will define the rest of his life. Infancy and childhood are done. Rather, now he is a “Bar Mitzvah.” (A girl is “Bat Mitzvah” a year earlier because she develops her first signs of maturing physically around age 12.)

At that age the “bar mitzvah” — the son of the Divinely ordained commandment — now is expected to act like someone who lives by G-d’s laws. He no longer can blame his miscreance on his parents. They now are liberated from judgment for his sins. We educate and instruct him on a deeper level. We count him in the male quorum of the minimum-ten whom we need assembled daily at worship to recite certain elevated prayers. He begins donning tefillin daily, every morning except Shabbat (Sabbath) and Holy Days.

That is what a Bar Mitzvah is. To celebrate the boy’s ascent into his new age — the era of personal responsibility — the parents sponsor a celebration at the synagogue. Perhaps they invite family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. The boy marks the occasion by serving as prayer leader, often leading nearly two hours of prayer recitals and chanting. He is taught to recite from the Torah for a public reading that can require as long as 30-45 minutes chanting a text in Hebrew that has no vowels and needing to memorize and remember the musical cantillation to every word.

It is painful for Orthodox Jews to observe all the garbage and detritus that has turned this holy rite into a circus and disgrace, ruined by American commercialism. “Bar Mitzvas” marked by go-go dancers, filthy-mouthed comedians and intoxicated uncles, entire celebrations bereft of any “Mitzvah”— leaving only the Bar.

Bar Mitzvas at the race track. Bar Mitzvas at ballparks. You be the judge:This? This? This? This? This?

Please do not misunderstand. If a family chooses to hold a beautifully spiritual classic Sabbath bar mitzvah at their synagogue, and then to follow it up that Saturday night or the next day at a special venue with a lovely and memorable party, with great catered food, with wonderful professional music, for the many others who could not attend the day before on the Sabbath, more power to them.

But let the food be kosher. Let the people be clothed properly. Let them dance respectfully. Let them conduct themselves spiritually. Let the boy or girl perceive that he or she has emerged from the experience as a valued elevated member of a preciously spiritual and even pious religious community — rather than perceive that the religion is a joke, a commercial enterprise for a spiritually hollow materialistic group who define their values by emptiness and shallowness, ignorant of their past and oblivious as to the future, bereft of G-d, of Torah, of heritage, or of mitzvas.

It is despicable to make a mockery and sacrilege of what is holy. In Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and in other denominational variants — yes, that is the word for such non-Orthodox denominations: variant — on real Torah Judaism, the spiritual floor often sinks as low as the depraved or simply deprived mind can descend. So families even sponsor “Bark Mitzvas” to mark their dogs’ thirteenth years. Shameless. Talk about “cultural appropriation.”

If one wants to dress like a hassid, go ahead — be our guest and appropriate. Put on your yamulka; here comes Hannukah. But leave our religion and rites alone. American Bar Mitzvas outside the Orthodox community have become so devoid of Judaic authenticity and Jewish self-respect that even many non-Jews now find themselves blowing $75,000 on “bar mitzvas” when their own kids ask for one.

And so it is with Hannukah.

A proper Hannukah recognizes, first, that it is not a Jewish Christmas — not any more than Christmas is a Christian Hannukah. There is no authentic Judaic tradition of “eight crazy nights of gifts.” Sure, it is okay — if that floats your boat — to give gifts eight days and nights. We always can use more socks, pajamas, and especially chocolate. Moreover, many Western Jewish parents over-compensate with daily Hannukah gifts because they understandably empathize with the feelings of deprivation their children experience as a perpetual minority everywhere in the non-Muslim world (outside Israel) where the predominant December action is for Christmas. Even all the many leading Christmas songs and carols (bordering on most of them) were written by Jews because they wanted to reach the commercially ample Christmas market.

But Hannukah is not about presents. And it is not about “winter lights” per se. This absolutely ridiculous YouTube video about Hannukah is perhaps Exhibit 1 on the subject of “Hannukah of Fools.” Fittingly, as with so much else , only Kamala Harris could have done this one.

For once and for all: Hannukah is not about “when the darkness of winter comes, light a candle.” Rather, Hannukah sometimes is partly in November or January — and always in December — because those days in Kislev and Tevet on the Jewish calendar are when the miracle happened. If the Maccabees instead had expelled the Syrian-Greeks and lit the menorah in July, the message would not have been “when the heat of summer comes, turn on the air conditioning,”

It is not about all the “woke” causes in the world except for those impacting Jews, as this person recently posted — fittingly on CNN. Note that he lights a candle for social justice, another for Blacks, another for women, another for LGBTQIA+, another for immigrants detained at borders (uh, for attempting to break in illegally), another for planet earth. A real shame we don’t have forty or fifty candles on the menorah because, if we did, he might even have gotten around to Judaism, Jews, or Israel eventually. So sorry I could not be at his bar mitzvah. Not.

The truth is that Hannukah is a very lower-rung holiday on the Jewish calendar as compared to the serious holy days. The reason that it is so extra-well known is that it is so easy to commemorate — particularly for fools and for the ignorant who know nothing else about Judaism (a demographic comprising perhaps 80 percent of those who identify in America to pollsters as “Jews”).

Hannukah is not of the dimensions of Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur, Sukkot (Tabernacles), Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, Pesach (Passover), Shavuot, or even days when we mark tragedy like Tisha B’av or the 17th of Tamuz. It even is beneath Purim on the order of significance of minor holidays, though it outranks Tu Bishvat, Tu B’Av, Lag B’Omer, and Golda Meir’s birthday.

It is post-Biblical because the Maccabean encounter with the Syrian-Greek oppressors occurred after the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible, also called the “Old Testament” by Christians) was closed and canonized . Hannukah is discussed ever-so-briefly in the Talmud, only in the context of a deeper discussion regarding lighting the weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) candles that we kindle every Friday night. In a brief segue, the rabbis also devote a sidebar to asking: oh, by the way, any nuances regarding the rules for kindling Hannukah lights? Mesekhet Shabbat 21b.

So, in the Talmud’s words: “Mai Hannukah?” — ?מאי חנוכה What is Hannukah? The answer:

Hannukah marks a significant Jewish historical event. The Greek Empire, geographically based along the Mediterranean Sea, conquered significant parts of the Middle East. From Syria, they then conquered Israel. (There were no Arabs or “Palestine” there then, nor would there be Arabs for another 700 years or so. Only Jews.) They then conquered Jerusalem and the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah in “East” Jerusalem. (The city was not then divided as by United Nations schemes, nor would it be for millennia to come.) They entered the Temple, defiled it, removed its Judaic symbols like the menorah, and replaced in their stead statues and idols representing the gods of Greek mythology.

Eventually, by G-d’s grace, the Jews arose in rebellion, led by the Hasmoneans – a family of religious leaders, of the Kohen sub-tribe of Levi. The High Kohen (High Priest) had five sons who primarily led the revolt. Judah the Maccabee (the Hammer) stood at their fore. The Jews miraculously overcame the far predominant Greek numbers and military power, expelled the invaders, liberated the Temple, cleared out the idols and statues, and rededicated the Holy of Holies.

Towards that end, they set about reinstituting the daily kindling of the menorah. That candelabrum, constructed in exact shape and dimensions as set forth by G-d to Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) in the Bible (see, e.g.,Exodus25:31-40), was to be lit daily with Kohen-consecrated olive oil. However, the liberators found only enough oil to sustain a wick for 24 hours, and it would take a week to produce more. (Supply lines?) So the question became: Do we do the practical thing and wait another week to resume regular daily menorah kindling, by which time we will have produced new oil not only for that night but also will have ample consecrated olive oil in stock for all the foreseeable future? After all, c’mon, we have gone all this time, under the oppression, without lighting anyway. So what’s one more week? Why go through the trauma of seeing the menorah fizzle out tomorrow night, something we never before have allowed to happen when the Temple has been under our control?

And then there was the alternative opinion: Look, we now have enough for the next 24 hours. The opportunity now is at hand. We waited all this time. Stop worrying about “what if?” If Jews paused long enough as a people to worry about “What if?” we would have disappeared long ago.

What if, upon being freed from Egyptian bondage, we starve in the Sinai Desert? What if we cannot liberate the Promised Land from the Canaanites and Philistines? (There were no Arabs or “Palestine” there then, nor would there be any Arabs there for another 700 years. Only Jews.) What if Goliath beats David? What if Sennacherib wipes out Judea? What if our Maccabean revolt is defeated by the Greek Empire? What if seven Arab armies in 1948 crush the emerging State of Israel and drive us into the sea? What if the U.N. or Carter or James Baker or Clinton or Obama or Kerry or Biden or Blinken oppose Jewish rights to East Jerusalem? What if the Soviet Union won’t let Jews out and retaliates against them to suppress efforts around the world to advance their freedom from communism? What if Iran builds a nuclear weapon?

Consequently, that other opinion was: No “What ifs?” Right now, we have enough Kohen-consecrated oil to kindle the menorah in the Temple for the first time since the Oppressor closed it down and defiled it. Do what needs to be done now. Leave tomorrow for tomorrow. If G-d wants the oil to burn out, it will burn out. And who knows? Maybe G-d will send us the most subtle of signs that He is with us, that He never left during the Greek Empire defilement, that He never stopped watching over us even in all our years of persecution? Who can know? So, meanwhile, just light it. We can worry about tomorrow . . . tomorrow.

So they lit the menorah promptly instead of “being practical,” neither waiting a week more nor “playing it safe.” And the Kohen-consecrated oil that was only enough to last 24 hours continued kindling uninterrupted for eight days — until the new ample supply arrived.

As minor a miracle as that may seem — no Ten Plagues, no splitting of the Sea of Reeds, no manna from Heaven daily to feed three million people in a desert for forty years — it was a remarkable sign that the rules of Nature are suspended when G-d chooses to suspend them. The Jews had not abandoned G-d and His Torah, and He still was there, never having abandoned the Jews in Israel. Therefore, the rabbis ordained that, thereinafter, Jews would light candles every year for eight nights to remember the miracle that G-d never had stopped watching over Israel. It meant that, as long as Jews would remain true to G-d and Torah Judaism, He would be there.

Go explain that to Doug Emhoff and his Kamala. Go explain that to Ben and Jerry. Go explain that to George Soros and Bernie Sanders. Go explain that to Cheeseburger Chuck. Go explain that to Jews in Hollywood and on Broadway. They who shamelessly “celebrate” their Hannukah of Fools — just as their parents brought them into “manhood” with bar mitzvas of fools — are akin to the “As a Catholics” like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Bill de Blasio, John Kerry, Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, the Kennedy family of Massachusetts, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, dozens of pro-abortion House members like Ted Lieu of California, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and just so many others among American leftist celebrities, entertainers, and media personalities comprising their own long dirty-laundry list.

Those “As a Catholics” deeply frustrate the Catholic Church, cardinals and bishops and priests who administer the eucharist, and all devout Catholics who cringe that these apostates are the Catholics whom the media present to the non-Catholic world as their religion's ambassadors. Among Protestants, evangelical and other Christian pastors likewise express profoundly deep frustrations over these very same concerns by which commercialism, cultural sacrilege, efforts to teach public school children to believe non-binary gender falsehoods, and so much other “wokeness” depreciates and distorts their religion, its holidays, and the greater culture and society.

I wish my non-Jewish readers a meaningful holy season imbued and steeped with religious meaning and significance, shorn of commercialism and “woke” secularism. May G-d smile upon those who smile upon Him.

As for the others out there: May He inspire those who miss the point to get the point. And may He bless us all with a Hannukah season that is true to Hannukah, bar mitzvas that are true to their religious meaning, and deeper insight into how we can enjoy the manifest benefits of capitalism and free enterprise without compromising the deeper benefits of religious freedom, religious fidelity, and religious values.

Adapted by the writer for Arutz Sheva from a version of this article that first appeared here in The American Spectator.

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer is Contributing Editor at The American Spectator, adjunct professor of law at two prominent Southern California law schools, Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values, rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California, and has held prominent leadership roles in several national rabbinic and other Jewish organizations. He was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, clerked for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and served six years on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His writings have appeared in The Weekly Standard, National Review, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Jerusalem Post, Israel Hayom, and The Jewish Press. Other writings are collected at www.rabbidov.com .
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