Miracle of Chanukah
Dan Brook and Richard H. Schwartz
Hope springs eternal. Indeed, it's always been an
integral part of Jewish history, spirituality, and politics.
Without hope, there wouldn't be a Chanukah; without
hope, there might not even be a Jewish community. That's
the power of radical hope!
Jewish survival is a miracle of hope. Increasing light at the darkest time of the year to celebrate Chanukah and Jewish survival is also a miracle. This year, we work and hope for another miracle.
We sincerely hope that Jews will enhance their celebrations of this ancient, beautiful, and spiritually-meaningful holiday of Chanukah by making it a time to strive even harder to live up to Judaism's highest moral values and teachings. We certainly don't need more "things" in our homes; instead, we need more meaning, purpose, and spirit in our lives. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this. One significant way is by moving towards vegetarianism.
Chanukah commemorates the single small container of pure olive oil-expected to be enough for only one day-which, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), miraculously lasted for eight days in the rededicated Temple on the 25th of Kislev 165 BCE, exactly two years after it was defiled by the Syrian-Greeks. A switch to vegetarianism on the part of the world's people could help bring about another great miracle: the end of the tragedy of world hunger and therefore ensure the survival of tens of millions of people annually. Currently, from one-third to one-half of the world's grain, and about three-quarters of major crops in the U.S. (e.g., corn, wheat, soybeans, oats), is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while about one billion poor people chronically suffer from malnutrition and its debilitating effects, tens of thousands of them consequently dying each day, one every few seconds.
Maimonides, the great physician and scholar, who wrote that the pain of people is the same as the pain of other animals (Guide for the Perplexed), ruled that one must literally sell the clothes one is wearing, if necessary, to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and celebrating the miracle (Hil. Chanukah 4:12). Uniting physical needs and spiritual needs is vitally important for both the body and the spirit.
Chanukah represents the victory of the idealistic and courageous few, over the seemingly invincible power and dominant values of the surrounding society. We learn through both our religious studies and history that might does not make right, even if it sometimes rules the moment. Therefore, quality is more important than quantity; spirituality is more vital than materialism; though each is necessary. "Not by might and not by power, but by spirit", says Zechariah 4:6, part of the prophetic reading for Shabbat Chanukah. Today, vegetarians are relatively few in number and captive factory farm animals are powerless to defend themselves, but the highest ideals and spirit of Judaism are on their side.
Still believing in brute force, materialism, and greed, the world presently wastes a staggering and nearly unimaginable $1 trillion on total military might (about half of that amount is by the U.S. alone), while half the world's population barely survives on $2 a day or less and, as noted, some don't even survive. Security does not come from superior physical forces or from authoritarian political conditions, as the Chanukah story and others remind us. Collective security lies in a just and sustainable society, just as personal security lies in a healthy and sustainable diet. These are deeply and intimately related.
The Jewish anti-imperialist insurgency, led by the
Macabees, was sparked when a pig was killed and Jews
were ordered to eat it. According to the Book of Macabees,
some Macabees lived on plant foods--to "avoid being
polluted"--when they hid in the mountains to escape
capture. Further, the two major foods associated with
Chanukah, latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot
(donuts), are vegetarian foods--as is chocolate gelt--and
the vegetable oils that are used in their preparation
are a reminder of the vegetable oil (olive) used in
the lighting of the Temple's Menorah.
The miracle of the oil brings the use of fuel and other resources into focus. Vegetarianism allows resources to go much further, since far less oil, water, land, topsoil, chemicals, labor, and other agricultural resources are required for plant-based diets than for animal-centered diets, while far less waste and pollution are produced. For example, it requires approximately 78 calories of non-renewable fossil fuel for each calorie of protein obtained from factory-farmed beef, but only 2 calories of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of protein from soybeans. Reducing our use of oil by shifting away from the mass production and consumption of meat-thereby making supplies last longer, freeing us from our dangerous dependence on oil, and oily authoritarian governments-would surely be a fitting way to celebrate the miracles of Chanukah.
In addition to resource conservation and economic efficiency, a switch toward vegetarianism would greatly benefit the health of individuals, the condition of our environment, and would sharply reduce the suffering and death of billions of animals. Further, the social, psychological, and spiritual benefits should not be underestimated. Many people who switch to a vegetarian diet report feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually better.
Chanukah also represents the triumph of idealistic non-conformity. The Macabees fought for their inner beliefs, rather than conforming to external pressure. They were willing to proudly exclaim: this we believe, this we stand for, this we are willing to struggle for. Like the Macabees, vegetarians represent this type of progressive non-conformity. At a time when most people, especially in wealthier countries, think of animal products as the main part of their meals, vegetarians are resisting and insisting that there is a better, healthier, more environmentally sustainable, and ethical choice.
Candles are lit for each of the eight nights of Chanukah, symbolizing a turning from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from oppression to miracles. According to the prophet Isaiah, the role of Jews is to be a "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6). Vegetarianism can be a way of adding light and hope to the darkness of a world still suffering with slaughterhouses and factory farms-and their attendant negative consequences-as well as to other symbols of violence and oppression.
The word Chanukah means dedication, while the Hebrew
root of the word means education. Each year, we should
re-educate ourselves about the horrible realities of
factory farming and slaughterhouses, as well as re-dedicate
our inner temples. We can do this by practicing the
powerful Jewish teachings and highest values of Judaism,
as another way to "proclaim the miracle" of Chanukah
and Jewish renewal. These sacred values (mitzvot)
include compassion for others, including animals (tsa'ar
ba'alei chayim), preserving one's health (pekuach
nefesh), conservation of resources (bal tashchit),
proper spiritual intention (kavanah), righteousness
and charity (tzedakah), peace and justice (shalom
v'tzedek), being partners in creation (shomrei
adamah), healing our world (tikkun olam),
and increasing holiness in sacred matters (ma'alin
bakodesh v'ayn moridim, just as Hillel ruled we
should light the menorah for the eight days in ascending
Chanukah commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from the Syrian-Greeks. In our time, vegetarianism can be a step toward deliverance of society from various modern assaults and tragedies, including world hunger, heart disease, cancer, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, deforestation, pollution, global warming, species extinction, resource depletion, rising health care costs, and lost productivity, among others.
One way to achieve the wonderful aspirations of Judaism is by switching to a vegetarian diet. A shift toward vegetarianism can be a major factor in the rededication and renewal of Judaism, as it would further demonstrate that Jewish values are not only relevant but essential to everyday personal life and global survival.
The letters on a diaspora dreidel are an acronym for
nes gadol hayah sham, a great miracle happened
there. May the celebration of this joyous holiday inspire
another miracle within each of us.
My we all have a happy, healthy, and miraculous Chanukah!
Daniel Brook, Ph.D., is the author of Modern Revolution
(University Press of America, 2005) and dozens of articles.
He is a member of the Advisory Committee of Jewish Vegetarians
of North America and can be contacted through CyberBrook's
ThinkLinks or directly at
Brook*at*california.com. Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D,
is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism,
Judaism and Global Survival, and over 100 articles.
He is President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America
(JVNA) and Coordinator of the Society
of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV).
Back to Jewish
Holidays and Vegetarianism