Monday, December 18, 2006

Festival of Light Spending

Happy Hanukah! Today is the 5th of 8 days in which Jews commemorate the miracle that happened 2,172 years ago in Jerusalem: after ejecting the armies of the Hellenistic Syrian King Antich IV, the Hasmonean Macabees found only a day's supply of oil in the Temple Menorah, but the oil lasted for 8 days.

An act of God? (If so you'd think His Omnipotence would stretch our oil supply now that we REALLY need it.) More likely, it's a great example of early day entrepeneurship, because Judah Macabee was nothing if not a scrappy entrepeneur. He recruited a great team and executed more nimbly than the much larger, incumbent Syrian army. With only a day's supply of oil, he likely teased that fire, closed the Temple doors to mitigate wind and oxygen levels, and restricted the flame to peak hours of animal sacrifice. Judah, inventor of the low burn rate, knew better than anyone how to Get Big Cheap!

I anticipate a flood of comments and emails accusing me of hypocrisy as I celebrate Hanukah while rejecting faith. But you don't have to believe in mythological deities to participate in cultural events or reflect on history. For descendents of the Judean nation, Hanukah is as good an excuse as any for families to gather, eat, sing, play games and exchange presents. My rebbe Richard Dawkins agrees--when I asked him his opinion of Jewish cultural traditions, he gave me his enthusiastic "blessing" to celebrate them with as much joy as July 4th or Thanksgiving.

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  1. Anonymous9:01 PM

    couldn't agree more. many of my jewish friends and i have no connection to the religion but ae very proud of the culture and all of it's unique traditions. above all, as you say, it's a place on the calendar to get family together for food and fun.

  2. That is exactly what we do at this time of year.

  3. Anonymous12:25 AM

    In the NY Times, Dawkins talks about a similar attitude towards Christmas. It turns out that Sam Harris even has a Christmas tree.

  4. David: Great post. But I think you missed a few chances to extend the analogy, which I write about here.

  5. The two books of Maccabees (excluded from the Jewish canon) - are the primary historical sources for the events of Chanukah and they make no mention of a miracle of oil. They explain that the original celebration was a delayed Succot (which with Shemini Atzeres is "coincidentally" 8 days long). Josephus likewise doesn't mention the miracle of the oil.

    The story of the miracle comes from the Talmud (although the Talmud is hundreds of years after the Chanukah story, the specific rabbi that mentions the miracle is only about 200 years after.) But the Talmud is primarily concerned with Jewish law, ethics, etc, and not with accurate historical accountings. Many of those laws were developed with the specific intention of ensuring Jewish survival. That we are celebrating Chanukah 2200 years later is proof of its success!