On Monday, December 23, 2019, the Jewish community celebrated the feast of “Hanukkah,” and in its December 22 Italian edition, L’Osservatore Romano published an article by Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Mr. Oren David, explaining the meaning of this feast of light.
“This year the Jewish feast of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas, two feasts of light that bring joy and happiness at the beginning of winter. This enjoyable coincidence takes place at the end of a very important and special year, since the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See was celebrated with a concert of Jewish sacred music in the great synagogue of Rome, and with a joint issue of a stamp representing Saint Peter’s Basilica and the synagogue at Capernaum, as symbol of the particular relationship between Judaism and Christianity,” said the Ambassador.
He referred to the historical and biblical origin of this celebration. “Hanukkah recalls the victory of the Maccabees over the Greco-Syrian leaders in the 2nd century B.C. and the celebrations of purification and re-consecration of the Temple of Jerusalem, which they profaned after the Jews refused to accept the pagan divinities in their rites and prayers. The Jews at the time did not reject all the aspects of Greek culture, but likewise, they wanted to defend their own cultural specificity that, in a certain sense, coincided with the strictly monotheist religion. Antiochus IV, the sovereign at the time, did not accept this desire for freedom of a not very great people and, consequently, in face of their clear refusal to accept Greek idolatry, he chose a violent and persecuting attitude to strike the heart of the Jewish faith and so destroy it.”
The Ambassador stressed the importance of the religious freedom won then by the Maccabees. ”So the Jews of the time decided to fight for freedom and for the monotheist faith and, against all expectations, some won against the larger number and the profaned Temple was freed. To render the place sacred for the faithful, it was necessary to re-consecrate it and light the candelabrum, which should never be extinguished: the only remaining oil could burn during only one day and to prepare for longer would have taken eight days. Despite the risk that the flame would be extinguished, it was decided not to wait and to consecrate the Temple again immediately, and it’s there that the miracle took place: the oil burned for such a long time that it was necessary to prepare it again.”
For the Ambassador, this light is “sacred” and expresses thanksgiving rendered to God. “It’s precisely in memory of these events that this eight-day feast was born and which in Hebrew means “re-consecration” or “inauguration.” During the days of the festival, Jewish families worldwide light a supplementary candle each day using a nine-branched candelabrum called Hanukkah. The first evening, the shamash is lit, the candle that is used to light all the other lights, and the first candle, accompanies the rite of a blessing. The second evening, the shamash and two candles are lit and so on until the last night, when the whole chandelier shines with a light that must not be used to light a place; because they are sacred lights of thanksgiving, in fact during the lighting, they say: “We light these lights in memory of the miracles and of the liberation and exploits and wonders and consolations that you did for our fathers in the days of that time through your holy priests. During the eight days of Hanukkah, these lights are sacred and we cannot use them, but only look at them, to render homage to your name for your miracles and your wonders and your salutations.”
He also noted that this victory had consequences also for other peoples, not only Israel. “It is traditional to light the lights by the window so that they are visible, to profit from them and to remember not only the sacred character of life but also the importance of the ideals for which you live. The triumph of the Maccabees over the Greco-Syrians is a fundamental historical event because it ensured the survival of Jewish monotheism and, consequently, of all monotheisms. Without this victory, the world would have been very different,” noted the Ambassador.
He also pointed out that the story of the Book of Maccabees is part, paradoxically, of the Catholic Bible, and not of the canon of the Jewish Scriptures (only the Greek text has reached us). And he quoted the teaching of Popes regarding the specific links between the Jewish faith and the Christian faith and against anti-Semitism. “Saint John Paul II — during the meeting with the Jewish community in the synagogue of Rome on April 13, 1986 — described with precision the profound bond and affinity between our two Confessions, saying that “The Jewish religion is not extrinsic for us,” but “in a certain way it is” intrinsic “to our religion.” It is particularly symbolic that the Books of the Maccabees, which are not an integral part of the Hebrew Bible, are part of the Catholic and Orthodox Bible and describe the events celebrated by Jews worldwide. Pope Francis has recalled several times the Jewish roots of Christianity and, in his address to the delegation of Rabbis, he stated clearly that a “Christian cannot be an anti-Semite. Our roots are common. It would be a contradiction of the faith and of life.” Recently, during the General Audience of November 13, speaking of anti-Semitism, he reminded that “it is neither human nor Christian. The Jews are our brothers! And they must not be persecuted. Do you understand? “ These are important words because, unfortunately, we are living a historical period in which the phenomenon of anti-Semitism does not cease to grow in the world at a level never recorded since the end of the Second World War.”
Alluding to the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah according to which it’s not necessary to seek so much to combat the darkness, but to make an effort to add light in life every day so that the darkness is automatically dissipated, the Ambassador concluded. “In the present historical period, therefore, Hanukkah takes on an even stronger and more important meaning and we hope, in this period of celebration, that its lights and those of Christmas can help to disperse the darkness and guide us towards a future of mutual knowledge, relations, peace and friendship between Jews and Catholics and among all the members of the human community,” he stressed.