What is Chanukah?

What is Chanukah? Chanukah is the festival, which is connected to the often-studied concept of light. 

Chanukah commemorates two miracles that occurred in Jewish history: the military victory of a small Jewish army against mighty armies and the menorah lights that burned for eight days when there was only enough oil for one day. 

“What is the reason of [celebrating] Chanukah? … When the Hasmoneans defeated..., they searched [the Temple] and found only one jug of oil that possessed the seal of the High Priest. It contained enough oil for one day’s lighting. A miracle occurred and the lamp burned for eight days.” (Talmud, Shabbath 21b)

Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, instructor at the Jewish Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, notes that our observance of Chanukah is mostly centered on the second miracle. We mention the first miracle in our prayers. Why is Chanukah a festival solely focused on light? Chanukah commemorates a time when the Jewish people lived in darkness and were consequently redeemed from that darkness. The war was not merely a physical war, but also a spiritual war, due to the differences in religious practices. It is only through the miracle of the Chanukah lights that Jews experienced true salvation and clarity emanating from what seemed to only be an abyss of darkness.

What is Chanukah and Positive Psychology?

We, too, can find the light in the darkness in our everyday lives. The Second Wave Positive Psychology movement focuses on what First Wave Positive Psychology movement did not. Second Wave focuses on the subtle interplay between positivity and negativity and discusses the negative emotions attached to the positive ones. All emotions are a blend of light and dark and two sides of the same coin. To acknowledge the positive is to also acknowledge the negative. (Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2015)

The idea of light and darkness intertwined also applies to Chanukah. The Jewish people were forbidden from learning Torah, circumcising their male children, and renewing the moon each month. Because they  were forbidden from practicing overtly Jewish customs, the oppression brought them that much closer to G-d.

Light is born from darkness but also signifies our own rebirth. Just as we can find our light  and live it, we can also emerge from the darkness reborn, with new resolve. Every time, we emerge victorious from our seemingly insurmountable challenges and struggles, we come forward stronger than before. And with that, we relive the miracle of Chanukah each and every day of our lives.

What is Chanukah and its Connection to the Thirteen Attributes?

What is Chanukah and how is it connected to the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy? The Thirteen Attributes are the spiritual channels G-d uses to bring abundant mercy into the world. This not only includes the mercy G-d demonstrates towards us but He also gives us the ability to have compassion towards others. Chanukah is a time when G-d showed great mercy. We were living in darkness until G-d lifted it and ushered in the light that is the miracle of Chanukah. Just as G-d is merciful, so should we be merciful toward others.

According to acclaimed Jewish kabbalist, Rabbi Issac Luria, the eight days of Chanukah directly correspond to the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Breslov Rabbi Ephraim Kenig of Tzfat asks, “How is it possible for thirteen attributes to correspond to eight days of Chanukah?” The answer is the first seven days of Chanukah correspond to the first seven attributes. The eighth day of Chanukah, however, includes the remaining six attributes in a single day.

Mercy, also a widely-studied topic in Positive Psychology, not only implies behaving towards others with compassion but also behaving towards ourselves in the same manner. We are all inclined to criticize and demoralize ourselves. When we show ourselves self-hatred, we deny ourselves mercy, and inflict even more harm upon ourselves. Practicing self-mercy means choosing to forgive ourselves and treat ourselves with positivity and love. We actively choose to be merciful not critical, love not hate, and acceptance not avoidance for who we are (Cypers Kamen, 2013).

Included in Positive Psychology founder Professor Martin Seligman’s VIA Character Strengths and Virtues is the virtue of temperance. Temperance is forgiving others and showing mercy, being humble and modest, showing prudence, practicing self-regulation and self-control. Temperance is essentially learning to hold back our natural responses and behaviors in favor of a better, more controlled response. We hold ourselves back from becoming excessively arrogant, selfish, or any other trait that is excessive.

When we approach Chanukah, we are encouraged to emulate G-d’s Thirteen Attributes by practicing mercy and compassion. G-d’s mercy is what brought upon us the miracle of Chanukah.  When we practice compassion and mercy, we are, in effect, re-enacting the miracle of Chanukah in our everyday lives. 

What is Chanukah? to Jewish Positive Psychology

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