Elie Estrin on the History and Traditions of Chanukah
Date: December 6th, 2015

How did the holiday of Chanukah begin and what are some of the traditions with its celebration?  We are joined by Elie Estrin, rabbi at Chabad at the University of Washington and an air force chaplain with the 627th Air Base Group at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, who reviews the history and ways in which this important Jewish holiday is celebrated.  A constant theme of our discussion is the importance of cultural pride and religious freedom, lessons which were important thousands of years ago and still resonate today.

Our conversation, as usual, begins with getting to know our guest.  We talk with Rabbi Estrin about how he ended up as a military chaplain and whether he had to go through basic training.  We also discuss his path towards the rabbinate and his current work with Chabad, and Elie graciously explains what that organization is all about.

We then dive into the historical origins of Chanukah, going back some 2200 years and the efforts of the Greeks to Hellenize Judaism, or assimilate it into Greek pagan culture.  Elie reviews some of the main historical figures in the story and the lead up to a guerrilla war against the Greeks.  Upon retaking the Temple Mount, Judah Maccabee had his band of followers cleanse and rededicate the altar, which required burning oil for eight days.  Although they only had enough pure olive oil to burn for one day, the supply miraculously lasted for the full eight days giving rise to the tradition of lighting a menorah.  Tony learns that Chanukah stands for “rededication” and Elie also explains the reason we see different spellings of the holiday (e.g., Hanukkah).  He also brings up some recent archaeological finds in Israel that are of importance to the history of Chanukah.  Rabbi Estrin re-emphasizes the importance of the holiday for religious freedom — the right to practice one’s faith according to one’s conscience freely, particularly in a realm where you are a religious minority — and its importance for remembering and celebrating Jewish identity.

Following our discussion of the events 2200 years ago, Elie explains where Chanukah fits into the grand scheme of Jewish holidays.  Although we often hear of “High Holy Days,” Rabbi Estrin notes that there really are no “minor” holidays in the Jewish calendar and each celebration has its own particular and important meaning.  He reviews the difference between rabbinic holidays and biblical holidays.  We then explore a number of the traditions associated with Chanukah, beginning with the lighting of the menorah.  Elie notes that there has been some historical debate whether Jews are to light one candle on the first day of the holiday and progress to eight, or whether one starts with eight candles lit and roll down to one.  The former tradition has tended to predominate as a means of representing how light increasingly pushes back darkness.  We also discuss what can constitute a menorah, and Elie tells Tony that whatever is available is fine and points out Jews have been incredibly creative in always finding ways to celebrate even under the harshest of conditions such as the Holocaust and Soviet persecution.  This emphasizes the resilience of the Jewish people and the seriousness with which they take their faith.  Our conversation also covers a number of other traditions such as the dreidel, gelt (and giving of presents), and the various foods associated with Chanukah.  The emphasis on fried foods and dairy leads Tony to conclude that this might be one of the most delicious holidays ever.

We conclude with conversation about how Jews celebrate Chanukah in various settings, including America.  Rabbi Estrin, who works closely with college students through Chabad, recognizes that it is often difficult to retain one’s religious identity when in the minority and Chanukah becomes an important time for Jews to reconnect with their faith.  We talk about the issues of assimilation and cultural/religious identity that we have discussed on previous podcasts (see below) with Elie noting that it is a constant challenge to convince folks that being Jewish is not just about being dependent on a synagogue, but is something that must be lived daily in one’s life and that you need to build upon your faith one piece at a time, a message that is applicable to individuals within all faiths.  Recorded: November 13, 2015.



Chabad at the University of Washington.

Rabbi Elie Estrin on Twitter.


Daniel Libenson on Present and Future Judaism.

Carmel Chiswick on the Economics of Being Jewish in America.

Linda Weiser Friedman on Jewish Humor.

Carmel Chiswick on the Economics of American Judaism.

Jeff Levin on Judaism and Health.

Rajdeep Singh on American Sikhs and Religious Liberty.

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