Friday, December 08, 2006

Channkah: Presents

For those who are unfamilar with the story of the Festival of Lights, it has NOTHING to do with presents. The Maccabees did not defeat King Antiochus, clean up and resanctify the temple, and then exchange gifts. If you just want to take one part of the holiday out of context and celebrate that, fine, you can go have some donuts (sufganiyot) with Michael* of KosherEucharist. Although, for the record I am kind of jealous of Jameel, who can light his menorah with home-grown/picked/pressed olive oil, all from the land of Israel.

That said, I really enjoy presents. While I realize that might sound a bit, oh, materialistic, that is not how it is meant. I like to give/recieve small random gifts. Just something to tell the person that you were thinking about them, and that you appreciate them. So, if you are someone who wanted to get me a present, here are a few hints:

1) Books. They are an expensive habit, but one that I can't seem to break. And the New York Public Library branches aren't that awesome. At least not the ones nearest me.

2) Things that I specifically will like. (None of these, although judging from this list the Onion has a very interesting demographic. Actually that is not true. The Dick Tracy graphic novel looks interesting.)

3) Toy fighter planes/tanks/destroyers. Not a joke, I find these gifts endlessly amusing. Variants that I've particularly enjoyed: picture of a friend on an anchor, blue angels mardi gras beads, cast iron MiG.

*I am in no way trying to cast aspersions on Michael's observance, or lack thereof of the holiday. He had just posted about donuts, and also I wanted to link to him.


Anonymous said...

What do you mean they didn't exchange presents? The next thing you'll say is that they didn't even spin the dreidl!

AnnieGetYour said...

I'm actually pretty sure that they did spin the dreidl. Wasn't playing dreidl the cover for learning torah? Did I make that up?

babytyrone said...

No, you didn't make it up. That's the story that's told. But -- sorry to be the bearer of bad news here -- someone else did invent it, and fairly recently. The tradition of spinning the dreidl on Channukah is, relatively speaking, not that much older than that of exchanging presents.

The story of the Jews playing dreidl to fool the Greeks was an ex-post-facto invention, probably by German rabbis of the 19th century, to create a historical explanation for a custom that had already taken hold. (Jews who studied Torah under Greek, and later under Roman, rule did need a cover for their illegal activities. It just probably wasn't dreidl. It is more likely that they brought along books of secular philosophy and pretended to be studying those if they were seen -- which would go a long way toward explaining the hint of influence of Plato and Aristotle on Mishnaic thought.) Dreidl was a popular kids' game dating from medieval Europe. It probably began in England (the English called it 'totum') but was very popular in Germany, where it was called trundl. It might have become associated with Channukah because it was popular around Christmastime. Another explanation is that in medieval Europe it had become a custom not to study Torah on Christmas -- the fact that Jews were out doing everyday things on the day that Christians were home celebrating was often used as an excuse by medieval Christians to commit anti-Jewish violence, and so schools and study halls were closed and Jews stayed home with their families and played games. The Ashkenazi authorities were pretty harsh on anyone who played dice or card games, though, and so the tradition to play the German version of dreidl began, eventually becoming associated with Channukah. The explanation came later.

It's the same with the letters nun gimel heh shin on the dreidl. Nes Gadol Hayah Sham is a nice explanation, but really the letters are just the hebrew (or yiddish) versions of the ones that had been in use by the Germans: N for nichts - 'nothing'; G for ganz - 'all'; H for halb - 'half'; and S for stell ein - 'put in'.

Just because the Jews under Greek rule didn't spin the dreidl, though, doesn't make it any less of a holiday-specific custom to my mind. In fact, although your donut-eating friend is actually engaged in Channukah tradition that is ancient - eating fried foods - and obviously the lighting of the menorah is a mitzvah, there is reason to suspect that even the most famous story of Channukah, the oil that burned for eight days, is more of a myth borne of explanation than a historical fact. Yes, it appears in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), but it is pretty clearly aggadic rather than halachic. The deuterocanonical books of the Maccabees, which apparently make every attempt to become part of the canon by telling a tale of extended miraculous revelation, and so would have jumped all over a story like this one had it really happened, make no mention of it. The explicit reason given for why the holiday is eight days long: they wanted to make it a holiday 'like sukkot', and so they made it eight days. I.e., it was a religio-political move by the Hasmoneans to put 'their' holiday on par with the already accepted ones.

In another hundred years, I'm sure nobody will remember why we started giving each other presents on Channukah, and a very good traditional myth will fall into place, as it should.

And now I have to go cancel that date I signed you up for with Vincent Gallo and come up with something else. Durn.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Harley and/or Annie:

Could one of you please drop me an email. I have a question for Jewbiquitous...



Leah said...

I hate to leave this in a comment, but you don't have email addresses anywhere.... or maybe just email me too? It's about my friend Amy's Hanuka Blog Tour and she's short Jewish bloggers.

In my blogroll she's Big Mouth.