It’s beginning to look like we have a problem
With Thanksgiving behind us, we should be looking forward to Chanukah, but many of us will do so with a sense of unease because of the ubiquitous holiday displays and their musical accompaniment that retailers hope will attract shoppers to their stores for what they hope will be a sell-out holiday shopping season — but not our holiday season.
That season began today, known popularly as Black Friday. Philadelphia police began calling it that in the early 1960s because the “huge crowds [of shoppers] created a headache for the police, who worked longer shifts than usual as they dealt with traffic jams, accidents, shoplifting, and other issues.” (This quote and more information are online in www.britannica.com’s piece, “Why is it called black Friday?”)
Virtually every municipality lights up for Christmas as well, probably to entice shoppers into local stores. These days, municipalities with significant Jewish populations and even some retailers throw in some Chanukah decorations, but these are no match for the larger displays.
For many of us Jews, these display makes us feel more than a bit uncomfortable, as if they suggest that we somehow do not belong here. This feeling is intensified by the growing “War on Christmas” debate over whether stores and politicians, especially, should say “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
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A 2016 survey by the non-profit Public Religion Research Institute, for example, asked whether, out of respect for other faiths, retail businesses of all kinds should rely only on the neutral greetings. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans said “No,” while 66 percent of Democrats said “Yes.” (Before the letter writers rush for their keyboards, both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump were known to wish everyone a “Merry Christmas.”)
While this is the season of discomfort for many of us, there are others among us who have chosen a different route — and that is an even greater reason for cringing as this season begins. That is because these people have adopted an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” goes the popular seasonal song, but that can now be applied to Chanukah, as well, and way beyond the strings of blue-and-white lights that now hang in all too many Jewish windows each year.
Lowe’s, for example, sells a metal dreidel with LED lights to put on the lawn that can be seen from 100 yards away. It costs around $190. Amazon offers a cheaper alternative: an outdoor four-foot inflatable dreidel with built-in LED Lights for around $48. Chanukah wreaths to place on front doors range from around $35 to around $180. There are so many more such products to be found.
Then, of course, there is the “Chanukah bush,” which may have been the invention of the television and radio pioneer Gertrude Berg (the “Oprah of her day,” according to NPR’s Susan Stamberg). In an episode of her radio show, her character, Molly Goldberg, brings a “Chanukah Bush” into her home to placate her children, who felt like outsiders because everyone else had a Christmas tree.
Make no mistake: Such displays are wrong on so many levels, but trying to copy the practices of adherents of other religions tops the list. Judaism has been against “copying the nations” ever since Moses’s time.
Of immediate concern to Moses and to God, the Torah’s ultimate author, were the practices of Egypt, which Israel had only just left, and Canaan, the place to which it was headed. The prohibition against following either nation’s practices is stated in Leviticus 18:3. In Leviticus 20:23, which deals only with Canaanite practices, God explains the reason for the prohibition: It is because “I abhorred them.” In Deuteronomy 12:30, Moses adds another reason, the fear that copying some of these practices would lead Israel to adopt all of them.
It is possible that what prompted this admonition was the sin of the Golden Calf. Some theories suggest that this abomination was meant to honor the Egyptian goddess Hathor, who was often depicted as a cow (not in the pejorative sense common today). There was a temple dedicated to her in the southwest Sinai Peninsula, along the probable route of the Exodus.
According to the prophet Ezekiel, mimicking “the ways of the nations” was among the reasons for the destruction of the First Temple and the subsequent First Exile. (See Ezekiel 11:12.)
The biblical prohibition led to a class of laws and regulations usually referred to as “chukat ha’goyim,” or laws and customs of the nations (meaning every nation but our own). The Talmud’s designation is darchei ha’emori, the way of the Amorites, in which the Amorites stand in for everyone else. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 67a and b for some interesting examples, including a ban on husbands and wives exchanging names.) In brief, any “chukat goyim” that are idolatrous in nature, or are based on superstition that is rooted in idolatrous belief, are banned. (Warding off the evil spirits among the gods was apparently behind the spousal name-switching, which is why that is no longer included in the prohibition.)
If a law or custom has nothing to do with religious ritual or worship, most authorities have no problem with mimicking that behavior. The same holds true for superstitions that have no religious underpinnings.
Not all authorities agree, however. In the more religiously rigid communities, for example, the mode of dress is deliberately designed not to be similar to the non-Jews, even including an aversion to wearing ties in some communities.
At least one clothing concern for most of us may be traced to “chukat goyim”: covering our heads during prayer. It is considered mandatory today (as it always should have been), but it was not always so. In talmudic times, “men sometimes cover their heads and sometimes uncover their heads.” (See BT Nedarim 30b.) Because in those days only the prayer leader (the “agent of the congregation,” the shaliach tzibbur) did the actual praying, BT Soferim 14:15 required them and the Torah readers to cover their heads so as not to recite God’s name bareheaded.
That rule should have been extended to everyone in the congregation once prayer books became common. Yet even as late as the 16th century, when the Shulchan Aruch first appeared, there was no such mandate, although this law code does suggest doing so out of respect for God. (See the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 2:6. It also states there that Jewish men should not walk more than approximately six feet bareheaded, a rule first suggested by the Babylonian sage Rav Huna [see BT Kiddushin 31a.])
“Chukat goyim” enters the picture in the 17th century, precisely because non-Jews prayed while bare-headed. That caused David Halevy Segal (known as the Taz) to make it mandatory to cover our heads during prayer so as not to violate the Torah’s prohibition. (See his Turei Zahav commentary to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 8:2).
Despite his ruling, however, there was still no such mandate even in the 18th century, according to the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman). In his comment to Orach Chayim 8:2, he said, “there is no prohibition on the uncovered head at all,” and “it is permitted to enter a synagogue [bareheaded] and to pray.” He added, however, that covering our heads is “a good moral practice.”
That brings us to the Chanukah-Christmas conundrum. On the one hand, we have a minor Jewish festival that involves only one ritual—the lighting of an eight-branched menorah, or chanukiah. On the other, we have one of the two major observances of Christianity, this one involving the birth of that religion’s titular founder.
There is no comparison, except that they both fall out at about the same time in most years. This year, the seventh day of Chanukah occurs on December 25.
Among the Christmas traditions, in addition to the heavily decorated tree (itself a probable violation of the “tree of the field” commandment in Deuteronomy 20:19-20), is hanging wreaths on doors and windows; decorating homes with strings of lights and letters that spell “merry Christmas” (Jews now decorate their homes with cut-outs of dreidels and strings of letters that spell out “Happy Chanukah”); and Christmas lights (for which we now have those “Chanukah lights” mentioned earlier).
Let me be clear: Christmas is a religious holiday. Its customs and traditions are meant to enhance it; they are religious in nature and, therefore, covered by the “chukat goyim” prohibition.
On the other hand, the Tosefta states that it is permissible to wish a non-Jew a happy holiday, “for the sake of peace.” (See its commentary to Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3.) Given the various surveys, though, including the one mentioned above, wishing someone a happy holiday could be viewed as a “war on Christmas” and thus more likely to start an argument.
Chanukah is our gift to the world because it brought religious freedom into it. It gave others the right to celebrate their own sacred days as their beliefs dictate. We honor that gift for ourselves when we observe Chanukah as our beliefs dictate.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is