Ever feel like Hanukkah sneaks up on you? That you have not yet booked your party plans, dusted off your menorah, or realized that the frozen latkes at Trader Joe’s will definitely sell out? You are not alone. The Jewish people stumble into Hanukkah.
Every other holiday in our calendar comes with a ritualized preparatory period. Before Purim’s joy come the hunger pangs of Taanit Esther, the Fast of Esther. In advance of Passover freedom we spend days (if not weeks) on a search-and-destroy mission for all leaven. Rosh Hashanah has its preliminary month of Selichot prayers and daily shofar, and Yom Kippur arrives after a warmup Ten Days of Repentance.
But for the Festival of Lights, we’re in the dark. It’s the only Jewish holiday with no introduction, no build up, and no advance reminder. Before each Shabbat is Erev Shabbat (the special Friday hours, with their own rules and customs, that precede Shabbat); before Pesach is the preparation filled day of Erev Pesach. But in Jewish ritual, there is no such thing as “Erev Hannukah.”
Turns out, this pattern of preparation-rich holidays and an Erev-less Hannukah reaches far back in time. It even applies to our ancestors’ ancient introduction to each respective festival.
According to the Book of Esther, Persian Jewry knew Purim was coming. Haman drew lots to pre-select the date for his attack on the empire’s Israelites and sent intercontinental messengers to prepare the populace. Back in Egypt, Moses addressed the enslaved Israelites two weeks in advance of their exit: Slaughter a paschal lamb 14 days from now and prepare to leave on the 15th. The Book of Exodus records how, at Sinai, the Israelites receive a three-day heads up to prime themselves for the original Shavuot revelation. Today’s holidays mirror these original biblical experiences. If our ancestors knew a special event was on their horizon, then today’s Jewish calendar commemorates not only that event (e.g., Pesach), but also our forefathers’ experience of anticipating and preparing for that event (e.g., Erev Pesach).
Thus the annual Hanukkah surprise. Our tradition never developed a period of anticipatory rituals, because there is no anticipation to commemorate. The Maccabees of 160 BCE lived after the close of biblical prophecy, with no one able to tell them when or where victory might appear. No Hasmonean soldier fighting for Jerusalem had any foreknowledge that that day—the 25th of Kislev—would become a season of miracles. In the Talmud’s account, no one expected to locate a flask of pure oil in a ransacked Temple; no one predicted that a menorah would somehow be kindled that very night. Each and every additional night that ancient menorah stayed lit was one more unforeseen miracle, building up to eight. Hanukkah came as a surprise to the Maccabees; its only right that it catches us off guard today.
So much in Jewish practice requires preparation and slow growth. It takes time for a bar mitzvah to learn a parsha reading. It takes patience to prepare a kitchen for Passover. A life can be spent in the trenches of self-change that Yom Kippur asks of us. But in the midst of the winter gloom, Hanukkah asks us to be surprised by joy.
Unprepared for this year’s Hanukkah? That means you are doing it right. Let the light surprise you. You’ll join a long line of Jews—from the Maccabees shocked by yet another night of menorah glow, to generations of spiritual leaders who never proposed a preparatory ritual for Hanukkah—who knew that in a period of darkness, all it takes is a willingness to stumble into the light.
Ben Greenfield is the Rabbi of the Greenpoint Shul, in waterfront Brooklyn, and serves on the Talmud faculty at the Ramaz Upper School.