Shabbat Vayeyshev

Candles Friday 7th 4:10 pm
Havadalah Saturday 8th 5:05 pm

Rosh Chodesh Tevet on Friday December 14th

The issue of giving presents on Chanukah is a major distinction between the Ashkenazi and the Sefaradi world. The Ashkenazis grew up in a Christian world where celebrating Xmas was a major occasion. The Christian tradition is indeed to give gifts to commemorate the myth of gifts given to the baby that they thought would be their Messiah. And indeed there was a Catholic tradition of giving presents over 12 days.

Jews always gave gifts on each festival because of the command to “rejoice in your festivals.” And of course on Purim we are commanded to give each other gifts to celebrate the deliverance from Haman as specified in the Megillah. But there was no source in halacha for giving gifts on Chanukah until very recently. Apart from lighting the candles the only customs are to eat cakes fried in oil to reiterate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days and to gamble, something traditionally forbidden but allowed on Chanukah because our deliverance from the Greeks was a gamble, a risk and a winning bet.

Ashkenazis started giving gifts on Chanukah so that their children would not feel bad when all the non-Jewish children around then were getting gifts because Chanukah usually coincided with Christmas. And since we give gifts on all festivals, why shouldn’t we on Chanukah too? Except there is a problem if the only reason we give gifts is to imitate Christian customs. We should be secure and confident in our religious tradition without needing to follow others. Thanksgiving for example is a civil festival and that’s why many traditional Jews in America celebrate it. But Christmas as its name implies, is not. Some argue that nowadays Christmas is also a civil ceremony of materialism and has little to do with religion.

Nevertheless Sefaradim have tended to be proud of the fact that they have not given in to outside pressure. All the more so on Chanukah, precisely because the Maccabee rebellion against Greek rule was specifically because the Greeks had tried to assimilate the Jews to their different culture and religion.

It is fitting that we read from the Torah this week about how Joseph was able to resist capitulating to Egyptian culture. Outwardly he conformed but inwardly he remained loyal to his roots.