Family & Education

The miracle of the doughnuts

It's Chanukah, can someone pass Zelda a doughnut?


Poor Zelda grew up celebrating Christmas rather than Chanukah. This week, to speed her on her journey to greater Jewishness, the JC has treated her to a special tutorial about our miraculous festival of lights.


Teacher: Today we’re going to learn about Chanukah.

Zelda: Great. That’s like Jewish Christmas, yes? I love this one — the festival of the doughnuts. My favourites are the ones dredged in cinnamon sugar.

T: I think we should start by learning the origins of the festival.

Z: Righto. Though I know this — it’s all about the oil and the rededication of the Temple, right? There was only enough oil for one day, but it burned for eight days. Behold — it’s a miracle — yada-yada. Shall we move on to the doughnuts now?

T: Let’s try to stay focused.

Z: Sure. But can I just ask — are they jam ones, or have you got a selection? I really like the ones with the custard in the middle if you don’t have cinnamon ones.

T: Chanukah, which means “dedication”, partly commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after it had been vandalised and sacked by the armies of Antiochus IV. We light candles for eight nights to honour the miracle of the sanctified oil lasting for eight days even though there was only enough for a single day.

Z: Yeah, yeah -— I said that already. About these doughnuts…?

T: The light shared by the candles is purely for our delight. We do not use it to read by or for any practical purpose.

Z: Would eating doughnuts by candlelight be considered practical — or just a double-delight? I can see you could argue it either way.

T (head in hands): Oy vey, how am I supposed to work like this?

Z: Sorry. I honestly love lighting the candles, though my teenage son has started saying he’s “too old” for it. He still gets presents though. Is Chanukah really only just for kids?

T: Now that’s a good question! Mazeltov — you’re learning to ask the right things. Some people see it as a much lesser festival. It’s not Yomtov, we don’t need to refrain from work, though women should not work for half an hour after the candles have been lit.

Z: That’s odd — how come my husband’s never mentioned that bit?

T: You’d have to ask him. The Books of the First and Second Maccabees are not forthcoming on the subject.

Z: Maccabees? Ooh, hang on — I read about this. That’s Judah, yes?

T: Correct. Antiochus IV had outlawed the rites and practice of Judaism and many Jews converted to worshipping the Greek gods on pain of death. Judah and his brothers and followers fled to the hills above their village and from there launched a highly effective campaign of guerrilla warfare, using strategy to overcome a much mightier army.

Z: How does that tie in with the miracle of the oil though?

T: Because after their final victory, in 165 BCE, Judah’s army retook Jerusalem and reclaimed the Temple. The Temple was cleaned, a new altar built, and all traces of profane practice and sacrifice erased. But there was only a single flask of holy oil, still with the unbroken seal of the Jewish high priest from the days before the Temple had been defiled. There was only enough to burn for a single day, yet it lasted for eight days.

Z: Do you think it’s like when you have only enough salmon for three of you but then an extra guest shows up and you make it stretch by adding mashed potato and turning it into salmon fishcakes? Maybe they just, you know, added in some other oil…?

T: No, no, no! It’s not remotely the same. This was a miracle. The eight days gave them time to have more oil pressed and sanctified.

Z: But, hang on, why does Chanukah focus so much on the candles and the eight days of the oil anyway? Isn’t it really marking Judah’s struggle and eventual victory? Why do people think it’s all about the oil and the doughnuts? Isn’t it about so much more than that — resilience, determination, the struggle to stay true to our identity, our culture, our faith even in the darkest of times?

T: Yes — oddly, some people do get over-fixated on the doughnuts. Perhaps the candles remind us not just of the miracle of the oil but also that we must always create light where there is darkness, find hope even when we are on the brink of despair — as Judah did?

Z: But then it really isn’t just for children. Everyone should celebrate!

T: Indeed they should. The message of hope and perseverance and the right to be Jewish and practise our faith freely is so much more important than dreidls and doughnuts.

Z: Talking of which, I could probably manage two if you have enough…



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