Poor Chanukah. The holiday is pretty low down on the religious totem pole. Even compared to its brother Purim, the other non-biblical holiday, it falls short. Purim’s got four mitzvot, all crammed into 24 hours: Read the megillah (twice), give charity to the poor, give mishloach manot (edible gifts) to your fellow Jews and have a big seudah (festive meal).
Chanukah, like the very oil we are celebrating, has got one mitzvah (candle lighting) that lasts for all eight nights. There is a related megillah, the Book of Maccabees, but it remains in the Apocrypha, never having gotten the invite to the cool kids’ canonization table.
But far from falling by the wayside, Chanukah is one of the most highly anticipated and widely celebrated Jewish holidays. We have created all sorts of traditions and customs around Chanukah—Who needs a seudah? We’ve got chocolate gelt and potato latkes!—and we adhere to them as strictly as if they were engraved on those stone tablets. (“Thou shalt eat fried pastries filled with jelly. Though we recommendeth the caramel.”)
Other holidays may be defined by their special instructions: no leavened bread, eat in a hut, listen to megillah. With Chanukah, what it lacks in mitzvot and instructions it makes up for in Grand Themes, and in Israeli society especially, the Themes are what make the holiday special. More than any other Jewish holiday, the message of Chanukah aligns with Israeli mentality: Never give up. The small are victorious over the many. Fight for what you believe in. Even a small light can banish the dark.
These ideas are as fundamental to a modern-day Israeli—secular and religious alike—as they were to the Maccabees hundreds of years ago.
And Chanukah’s lack of mitzvot actually makes it kind of special. It’s a holiday that you can shape and mold however you like, a holiday that Jews of all stripes can easily celebrate together.
With so few “must-dos,” almost no “can’t-do’s” and a general lack of “seder” (order), Chanukah has truly developed into a holiday of the people. In the empty space where, “This is how you must celebrate” should be, we’ve filled it up with our own unique ways to celebrate and commemorate.