Last night was the first night of Chanukah and Jewish people around the world lit the first candles in their menorahs. We cannot say exactly when the tradition of lighting a menorah at Chanukah started, but the holiday itself was instituted by the Maccabees in 138 BCE and is referenced in many ancient writings. It is safe to say that we’ve been doing this for well over a thousand years. Despite this fact, there are pockets of people in the “messianic” or “Hebrew roots” communities that eschew this holiday and all other traditions or holidays that are not specifically instituted by God in the Torah.
In our synagogue, I teach a class called Foundations of Our Faith where we cover the history, practice, and significance of the Jewish holidays in the cycle of our yearly calendar. It’s a great refresher course for Jewish people who are a little rusty on the
hows and whys of their faith and a great way for interested Gentiles to become more literate about what their Jewish neighbors are doing and how it connects to the Bible. So much of Jewish practice is bound up in ancient tradition, that we talk about the concept of “traditional” vs. “man made” frequently in the class. I have encountered many people in the “messianic” world who want to throw away the holidays of Chanukah and Purim, the practices associated with celebrating most of the Torah holidays (i.e. we shouldn’t do a traditional Passover seder), and beautiful parts of Jewish life such as liturgy and Shabbat candle lighting. Their sole reason is that what is man made is not as pure as what God instituted and man has erroneously added to God’s perfect decree.
My first, and maybe snarky, response to these people is: Do you celebrate Thanksgiving? Independence Day? New Year’s Eve? Birthdays? These are all man made holidays, each with their own traditions and “practices” unique to you and/or your family. My second response is: If John goes to enough trouble to mention that Yeshua was in the Temple during the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22-23), don’t you think that if Yeshua had believed that Chanukah should not have been celebrated because it was man made that he would have spoken out against it? In all the times that Yeshua rebukes the religious leaders, he never once tells them that any of the holidays or liturgy are displeasing to God.
Tradition isn’t bad. It is not a four letter word. We are hardwired as humans to create memories and connections based on repetitions of words and events. It is actually a vital part of our commandment to pass along the words of God and to do it in a way that is repetitive and memorable. L’dor v’dor – from generation to generation. We can see this as far back as God’s commandment to observe the Passover.
And when you come to the land that Adonai will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, “What do you mean by this service?” you shall say, “It is the sacrifice of Adonai’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped. – Exodus 12:26-27
The traditions surrounding various holidays are meant to be teaching moments. We relate the miracles and lessons of God to our children as we repeat the small details of observance each year. Each tradition is part of the fabric of who we are as a people and how God has been with us through each triumph and trial.
You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise. – Deuteronomy 6:7
Repetition is the key to making lifelong, impactful memories. What adult can’t recall the sights, sounds, and smells of their most treasured holidays daily life? I lived with my grandparents for a time and the small things my nana did on a daily basis are still with me today – how she would serve ice cream in tiny bowls with even smaller spoons; how she used the time after dinner, while she washed dishes and I dried, to sing songs with me to help memorize Bible verses; how she sprinkled cinnamon and sugar on my toast from her special glass bear shaker. The things that our parents did in our childhood are ingrained in our memory. It connects us to who we are and where we have come from.
Our traditions are part of our innate creative expressions. How we decorate the home, the treasured Shabbat candlesticks or seder plate that get brought out every time we celebrate, the food we eat in joyous times, the ancient pieces of liturgy we chant, are all hiddur mitzvah – ways to beautify the mitzvah of celebrating our God. Sometimes God spells out exactly what he wants done, but many times he leaves blank spaces for us to fill with our expressions of awe and love for his goodness to us. Each space is unique because each experience is unique.
We naturally look for ways to set special times apart and commemorate moments of significance – the Songs of Miriam and Deborah in the Bible stand out in my memory. If a tradition doesn’t go against the word of God, there is nothing inherently wrong with it. The tradition of liturgy is based on scripture, communal worship, and the glorification of God. It is a common thread that was created to bind us together as God’s people.
My family came together last night to light the Chanukah candles. Our life has been extremely busy lately. Our usual decorating for the holiday hasn’t been done. The mantle is bare. The shelf that is typically cleared away to hold all seven of our menorahs
(one for each child and one for hubby and myself) still holds its usual decor. Our candle lighting was crammed in between a quick dinner of leftovers when dad came home and the rush to get to a piano recital for two of our girls. We hurriedly gathered around the kitchen island, lit the one menorah that we had pulled out, and sang the three traditional blessings for the first night. It wasn’t idyllic and lacked the magic of past years, but for those 10 minutes, the craziness of life fell away. My kids, from ages 18 to 8, sang the blessings by heart – with varying levels of precision. 🙂 This is what they know. This is what they look forward to. This is who they are and where they have come from. The act of lighting the candles and singing the blessings sparks memories, lessons, and connections.
Unprompted, my elementary aged kids have shared with their classes and friends this year about Chanukah – what it is and what it means. My middle school daughter told me she answered questions from her teacher yesterday about Chanukah. My high school daughter left for school today in a Chanukah sweater, sure to field questions from classmates and teachers. The tradition of celebrating Chanukah, and all the other things we do, has shaped my children’s understanding of who they are as Jews and what that means to them. It has been a foundation that will never leave them. It is the very essence of the Sh’ma.
If we strip away all the traditions, we leave behind a hollow core of observance, adhering to the letter of the law but lifeless in its very essence. We remove the connecting points that provide opportunities for teaching and binding our children to Judaism and their God. We leave them untethered and floating through a dull and lifeless shell of what God intended. Let us not become overzealous and dogmatic, but let us find joy in the connections and traditions that have strengthened us and brought us to this season.
Jennifer Caracelo serves alongside her husband, Rabbi Jude Caracelo, as the rebbetzin and Graphic Designer and Media Coordinator for Keren Ohr Messianic Synagogue in Savannah, Georgia. Deciding to put her degree in English Literature and Judaic Studies to work, Jennifer founded Neshama in June 2017 to create an online community for Messianic women. As a recovering craft addict, she tries to fit time into her busy schedule to knit, sew, and read. She has passed on her love of period drama movies and Bollywood films to most of her six children and even her husband.