Eight Themes of Hanukkah

For Discussion Around the Family Dinner Table


The Hanukkah story has many themes that can form the core of our holiday celebration. Here is a list of eight. They present opportunities for family discussions and activities. Try using them to focus your family dinner discussion as you enjoy the glow of Hanukkah candlelight.

Power and Powerlessness: The Hanukkah story appears to be the story of the military triumph of one family (the Maccabees) and their followers over the much larger and stronger Greek army. This masks a fundamental irony: The Maccabees’ revolt was the last military victory our people would celebrate for two millennia. Within two hundred years (Jewish) Hasmonean kings ceased to rule. Jews would not even have a standing army after the dispersion from the land of Israel in the year 70 CE until the twentieth century. And yet the Jewish people survived and thrived.

In what ways are we powerful and powerless today? What is the power of goodness; the power of doing mitzvot (what God wants us to do), and the power to touch other human beings? How does this power fit into a larger discussion of power and powerlessness?

Hint: Judaism and the Jewish people left Israel shortly after the Temple was destroyed in the year 70, and the people were dispersed (after 125 CE). They maintained their connection to God by carrying with them a plan of action (Torah, Mitzvah, Shabbat ) and following it where ever they went. They were open to learning new things from new cultures and incorporating them into their understanding of Torah and Mitzvot. 

The Search for Light in Dark Times: The miracle of light is celebrated in a season of darkness. The miracle is not only that the light lasted for eight days; it has lasted for two millennia.

Questions: What light do we celebrate? What darkness do we face?

Hint: List your family’s blessings. List the challenges your family faces. Develop a vision for the next year by asking everyone to share what they would like to see more of in their lives.

Gifts and Gift Giving: Hanukkah is a time of gift giving. In Europe and Russia the gifts people gave at Hanukkah were mainly "gelt"— small amounts of money used to gamble in the dreidel game. Now, in America, Hanukkah has become a time of major gift giving. This follows Christian practice and leaves some feeling like they never have the right gift to give.

Questions: What are our individual gifts? What gifts of service could we give to each other and to our community at this time of year?

Hint: All children and adults have talents. They may not view these as gifts to share, but if you are able to make a list of these gifts, you may be able to plant seeds of gift giving in your family. Suggestion: write down gifts of service on pieces of paper, and draw them out of a hat.

Resilience: Part of the miracle of Hanukkah is that our people has faced incredible obstacles (anti-Semitism, poverty, displacement) and still maintained the light of the Jewish people. This ability to "bounce back" from hard times has its place in every family’s history.

Questions: What are the hardest times our family has faced ( wars, economic downturns, family rivalries, disabilities, and deaths) How has our family found ways to grow from adversity? What have we learned from these experiences?

Hint: In preparation for this discussion, collect stories of the depression, or World War II, or the Vietnam war, and share them with family members. Select one family member who has died and talk about his/her contribution to your life that you still celebrate.

Fear and Vision: The story of Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of vision over fear.

Questions: What do we fear? How can we keep from making fear a general principle of living? What visions of our lives would represent the triumph of vision over fear?

Hint: Get people to think about ways to identify how fear can be an obstacle, and help them to think of ways to develop other premises for living. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said: All the world is a very narrow bridge. And the key is not to let fear be a general principle for living. Why is it problematic to be ruled by fear on a narrow bridge?

The Pride of Celebrating Who We Are: The story of the Maccabees gives testimony to the Jewish people’s unwillingness to escape from who they are. When Judah Maccabee refuses to offer a pig as a sacrifice to a Greek god, he is proclaiming a different standard of identity.

Questions: What qualities in ourselves are we proudest of? What are we proudest of in the accomplishments of our people?

Hint: For example, I am proudest of my ability to be a giving, loving, compassionate person. I am proudest of my people and its ability to celebrate light in dark times.

Celebrating the Miracle of Light in Our Lives: The Hanukkah story celebrates miracles. The light that lasted eight days when it should have lasted one is just one type of miracle.

Questions: What are the miracles that we celebrate? How are they testimonies to the experience of God in the universe?

Hint: Although this may be difficult to get started it can generate a discussion of miracles. Examples of miracles might include births of children, escapes from persecution or death, unexpected healing. Isn’t creation a miracle? And how about the expression of our daily prayer, "God renews creation daily..."? What if the sun didn’t rise one morning?

Vulnerability and Strength: The story of the Maccabee triumph is part strength and part vulnerability. In standing up for who they were, the Maccabees were celebrating being part of a Jewish people. But to do this leaves one exposed and vulnerable.

Questions: In what ways are we strong, and in what ways are we vulnerable? Is strength always strength? Is vulnerability always a weakness? The life of the Jewish people in history is a mixture of strength and vulnerability. Can you attest to some of the times when this mixture came into play in our people’s life; in your family’s life?

Hint: Most of us think about strength as a physical and spiritual quality. Vulnerability is a necessary component to new learning, and to risk taking and growth. Make a list of the ways in which being vulnerable allows people to get closer to each other. In view of this list, who is really a strong person? Isn’t it the one who can also take risks and be vulnerable.