What’s with all the Hanukkah fried food?
Deep fried latkes? Deep fried doughnuts?
Won’t our waistlines expand with each night of Hanukah?
I’m no stranger to fried foods. I was born and raised in Scotland before I moved to Israel, and as anyone who has visited Scotland will know, fried is our national dish. That’s not an understatement; we will batter and deep fry your chocolate bar, your haggis, even your pizza.
So what’s with all the Hanukkah fried food? Well on Hanukkah we remember the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the victory of Judah Maccabee over the Syrian-Greeks, Hellenists who had tried to stamp out all forms of Judaism, from Brit Milah to Shabbat observance.
In the summer of 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Land of Israel, adding one more victory to his empire that came to dominate the known world, from the River Nile to the River Indus.
Whilst Alexander’s Empire didn’t last beyond his death, the impact it had on the ancient world was immense. New cities like Alexandria in Egypt sprung up, and diverse cultures and communities came under the unifying influence of Greek culture.
By around the year 200 BCE, a growing number of Jews in the Land of Israel had assimilated into the Hellenistic culture, leaving behind a Jewish way of life for the more fashionable way of life of the Greeks. These Misyavnim, meaning Hellenists, were estimated to have been around 30-40% of the Jewish population at the time.
The ‘dispute’ between the Hellenistic world and the Jewish world was more than just about land or political control, it represented a fundamental division in how two peoples viewed the world. Hellenistic culture was later adopted by Rome and forms the basis for Western philosophy and Western culture. Today, Judaism still represents a fundamentally different viewpoint of the world from that of Greek inspired Western culture. While they look for beauty on the outside, we search for the beauty within each of us. While they only believe in the physical world and what can be experienced only by the senses, we understand the Universe is greater than we are and contains forces we can’t understand. While they believe in the binary of heaven and hell, good and evil, we believe everything is one.
For the Hellenists, Jewish laws like circumcision were an affront to their sense of ‘natural’ beauty. Shabbat observance was forbidden. Torah study was forbidden. Kosher slaughter was forbidden. In the Holy Temple a statue of Zeus was erected, and the Temple, including the oil used to keep the lights alive, was desecrated.
Antiochus, the Seleucid Hellenistc ruler of Judah, provoked a rebellion with this banning of Judaism. Mattityahu, the High Priest, along with his five sons began the revolt. After Mattityahu died in 166BCE, the youngest son Judah Maccabee (Judah the Hammer) took over leadership of the rebellion and successfully destroyed the ruling Seleucid Hellenistic rule over the Land of Israel.
When the Maccabees took back the Temple, there was only one jar of pure, undefiled oil left, just enough to burn for one day. But it burned for eight days, enough time for new oil to be pressed and brought to the Temple, where the Jews celebrated this rededication of the Temple, and renewed Jewish independence in the Land of Israel.
So we eat fried food because we remember the miracle of how the oil lasted for eight days. But not only this miracle, we remember the wider miracle of the Maccabean revolt. How our laws and customs were forbidden but how we were victorious and won back our national independence in our own land. When you are frying up a doughnut or a latke this Hanukkah, remember what it represents, that a Great Miracle Happened Here.