Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is my favorite Hanukkah story. I have loved the story since it was first published when I was six years old. It tells the great story of folk hero Hershel of Ostropol, and how he is able to outwit evil goblins who are terrorizing a village of Jews. The Goblins won’t let the Jews celebrate Hanukkah, and it’s up to Hershel to save the day and bring back Hanukkah! But what does it have to with the traditional story of Hanukkah? On the surface, absolutely nothing.
Spoler: There were no goblins in the Hanukkah story. And candles weren’t used to fight off any demons. The real Hanukkah story isn’t even in the Torah, and despite what the average non-Jewish American believes, Hanukkah really isn’t that much of a major holiday. So why do we celebrate Hanukkah? Where do its rituals come from? and why did I think we should read a children’s book that has nothing to do with traditional story of Hanukkah in this service?
Let’s back up and look at the history of the land of Judea, the Jewish homeland, and how it relates to Hanukkah. I apologize if what I’m about to talk about sounds too much like a history lecture, but I’m a History Teacher so you get what you ask for when I do a service. The Torah was actually written down (History teachers use the word “codified”) in the 6th or 5th century BCE during the Babylonian captivity, a thousand years after the founding of Judaism. This occurred after the Babylonians conquered Judea and destroyed the first temple of King Solomon. Persians in turn conquered the Babylonians and Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor, declared that the Jews were now able to practice their faith freely. He widely circulated a document we call the Cyrus Cylinder, which declared the right of each to believe in whatever faith they choose in his vast and mulit-cultural empire. Many consider the Cyrus Cylinder to be the first universal declaration of the human right to religious freedom. It’s only then, finally, that the Jews are able to return home and build the second temple.
So under first the Persians, followed by Alexander the Great, and then the rule of the family of one of Alexander’s generals Ptolemy the second temple lasted for approximately 400 years. It wasn’t until a different Persian dynasty, the Seleucids, descended from a different general of Alexander the Great, conquered Jerusalem again in 198 BCE. One of their kings decided to end the freedom of religion that Jews had enjoyed for 400 years. What’s more they decided to loot and desecrate the Jews second temple after the Jews had fled the city in fear of persecution.
That’s where the story of Hanukkah really begins. The king of the Seleucids, Antiochus, banned Judaism, erected a statue to Zeus in the Second Temple, and sacrificed pigs to him at the altar. This sparked a rebellion, led by the Maccabees, to take back Jerusalem and save the temple. The Maccabees win against all odds, and enter the second temple to see for themselves all the damage that was done. To purify the temple the Maccabees created a new altar, and lit the menorah at night during the celebration. Back then they used oil, and they only had enough for one night, and it would take eight days to create new purified oil for the menorah. But then, according to legend, a miracle happened and the oil lasted for eight nights- exactly the time needed to create a new supply. This is why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights now, and light the menorah each night.
So where do all our hanukkah traditions come from? Latkes? Presents? What about dreidels? What in the traditional Hanukkah story that I just reviewed has anything to do with dreidels? The story I was told growing up was that little kids in Israel played dreidel while under Seleucid occupation while they were not allowed to practice their faith. The letters nun, gimmel, hey, and shin that are on the dreidel stand for the Hebrew phrase “nes gadol haya sham,” which translates to “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the miracle of the oil that lasted eight nights. As an adult I realized this story makes zero sense. What does looking at 4 Hebrew letters and gambling teach kids about Judaism, and how did the letters on the dreidel celebrate a miracle that hadn’t happened yet? The truth is that dreidel is just a game that Jewish kids in Europe played a thousand years after the Hanukkah story, similar to games like teetotum in England where the letters on the top are “T = Take all; H = Half; P = Put down; and N = Nothing” (almost the same rules for Jewish dreidels), and totum in Germany where the letters are exactly the same as the Hebrew, “N = Nichts = nothing; G = Ganz = all; H = Halb = half; and S = Stell ein = put in.” So what does dreidel have to do with Hanukkah? Absolutely nothing.
Similarly, potato latkes are not really about Hanukkah and are a modern invention. Potatoes were only grown in the Americas, so potato latkes weren’t even invented until the mid 1800s. Prior to that Jews made a similar pancake out of cheese, which actually sounds pretty delicious. But the potato latke we eat today is a dish shared by many Central and Eastern Europeans, and added on as a Hanukkah tradition two thousand years after the fact.
Additionally, the idea of kids getting gifts on Hanukkah has nothing to do with the traditional story. As far as I can tell, kids didn’t start getting gifts for Hanukkah until the 1950s in America. Unsurprisingly this matches up with the rise of consumerism and gift giving by non-Jews at Christmas. Charlie Brown would be so disappointed. So just like presents have nothing to do with Christmas, they have nothing to do with Hanukkah.
There’s even disagreement about the menorah! Some Jews only light one candle a night, and argue that’s all required according to religious law. Others light one candle for each night that has passed. Even the most central tradition connected with the story of Hanukkah is contested and unclear.
So if most of the traditions of Hanukkah have been added years after the fact and have very little to do with the event in question, then why shouldn’t Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins be my favorite Hanukkah tale? It’s got adventure. It’s got humor. It’s got suspense! But it wasn’t till this year that I realized it’s message is perfect for my Jewish Unitarian Universalist values. In both the traditional story of Hanukkah and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins there is someone stifling religious freedom. And In both versions we have a hero who stands up to this oppression and triumphs, ensuring religious freedom. There is an old Jewish saying about Hanukkah that says “The Maccabees chased away the forces of darkness with swords; we do it with light.” Hershel is even more of a UU story than the Maccabees, because he was able to use his cunning wit to beat his foe. And that should be our lesson from Hershel.