Shining a Light on Hanukkah

Friday, December 7, 2018

From songs on the radio to decorations in public squares, it can often seem like Christmas is the star of the holiday seasons. But billions of non-Christians are the world spend some time in the last quarter of the year observing a different holiday. For those in the Jewish faith, it’s Hanukkah.

And while the timing of the celebration may make it one of the better-known Jewish holidays, Adam Gregerman, Ph.D., assistant director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations (IJCR) at Saint Joseph’s, explains that, liturgically, it's not among the highest of holy days.

“The Jewish holidays that are heavy hitters would include the New Year; the day of atonement, Yom Kippur; the Passover Seder; and even the weekly Sabbath,” he explains. “Those are holidays with a lot of rules and practices associated with them and that have deep theological ideas and meanings. Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday.”

So why is it so well known?

“It became more prominent in the last century or two among Jews who wanted their own winter holiday,” Gregerman says. “As Jews looked to claim their place in American society, one of the ways to do that was to find a counterpart to Christmas, which had become a secular national holiday. Not surprisingly, the holidays share some of the same features, including the emphasis on light during a dark time of the year.”

Phillip Cunningham, Ph.D., director of the IJCR, suggests that the similarities can create opportunities for families to discuss the idea of different religious traditions during the holidays.

“If Christians are curious about Hanukkah, learning the fact that it is a minor observance on the Jewish liturgical calendar might encourage them to ask about the major Jewish holidays and why are they more significant in the Jewish spiritual tradition,” Cunningham says. “That would really be a strong impetus to understand another religious tradition that's similar to Christianity in many ways but also quite different.”

Gregerman and Cunningham’s discuss the holiday season in the latest episode of “Good to Know: The Saint Joseph’s University Experts Podcast.” You can listen below and subscribe wherever you get podcasts.

Expand this section