At sunset today, Jewish people begin the eight-day Hanukkah celebration, their Festival of Lights that celebrates the miracle of a menorah, a seven-stick candelabra, in Jerusalem's Temple lit for eight days when there was only enough oil for one day.
In Toledo, one Jewish group will celebrate the holiday publicly Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at Westfield Franklin Park by lighting a menorah made from cans of kosher food — which, at the end of the holiday, will be donated to Jewish Family Service Food Bank.
“The interactive menorahs are a way to get people involved,” said Rabbi Shmouel Matusof of Bais Menachem Mendel-Chabad House of Toledo. “Last year we did a balloon menorah, the year before they did a jelly beans menorah, one year they did a Lego menorah. It's not just lighting the candles, it's to find a way that people will want to do it, that people will want to participate, to get everybody together to do it. You could find many ways to celebrate the holidays.”
Rabbi Yossi Shemtov, director of Chabad Toledo who is also Rabbi Matusof's father-in-law, said, “Hanukkah is the only tradition we have that the tradition is to illuminate the outside, sometimes dark world. All the other holidays are meant to celebrate indoors. The mitzvah, the tradition, of Hanukkah is that you have to pull aside the curtains, wait till it's dark outside and people are walking in the dark, and then light the menorah and make it light for them. It gets us thinking that there's more than one type of darkness. And Judaism has much to share that could brighten the lives of those who learn from it.”
Hanukkah's origin is in the second century B.C., a time when the Greeks were attempting to force their ways on the Hebrews. The Maccabees, a group of Jewish resisters, managed to regain Jerusalem's Temple, which had been taken to worship Zeus, and reconsecrate it. The miraculous menorah lit the Temple during this time.
“The book of Maccabees documents [Hanukkah], but the real authentic source is the Talmud,” Rabbi Shemtov said. “The Talmud is where every letter was preserved, every word was preserved.”
The Jewish High Holy Days, observed in autumn, are Rosh Hashanah or the new year according to the Jewish calendar, followed by Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Hanukkah is not perceived as having the importance to Jews that Christmas does to Christians. However, Rabbi Shemtov said, “Mystically, Hanukkah is the highest holiday — highest is the wrong word — it has an importance more than any other holiday. The Talmud says that when Mashiach [the Messiah] comes, the only two holidays to be celebrated in their full glory will be Hanukkah and Purim,” a holiday celebrating when Jews were saved from a plan to kill them. Purim is depicted in the book of Esther.
“The secret is the oil,” Rabbi Shemtov said. “Oil signifies, in mysticism, spirituality. [The Greeks] did not destroy the Temple. They didn't even destroy the oil. They just defiled the oil, defiled the spirituality, defiled the holiness.” Rabbi Shemtov explained that “oil always stays separate from any other liquid.” The spirituality could not be destroyed, the rabbi said. “Hanukkah is the time that we preserve that holiness. We have fun because it's so special.”
Rabbi Shemtov has been in Toledo 25 years; his son-in-law, Rabbi Shmouel Matusof, came to Toledo in September, 2011. “My accent is a combination of my birthplace, Detroit,” Rabbi Shemtov said, combined with “two years in Venezuela, 10 years in New York, and 25 years here.”
“The two years in Venezuela were in between the years in New York,” Rabbi Matusof said. Then he traced his route to Toledo. “I was born in Toulouse, France. I studied two years in England, two years in Israel, and then all together in the States, five years. We moved [to Toledo] a year and a half ago. I married his daughter so that's how I ended up in Toledo.”
Rabbi Matusof is a third-generation rabbi. Rabbi Shemtov's father is a rabbi, and his grandfather “sat in jail for many years,” Rabbi Shemtov said, for operating “underground schools for Jewish children in Russia, which was at that time a death penalty but he, thank God, made it out of jail and out of Russia.”
These generations were all observant Chassidic Jews in the Lubavitch movement. The most recent Chabad-Lubovitch leader was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994).
“It is hard for strangers to imagine how close-knit this family is,” Rabbi Shemtov said. “This is a tradition of 250 years, the Rebbe's the seventh Rebbe. He spent his life as his predecessors did, caring for his flock at the most literal and spiritual, physical — he just stood at the age of 89 for six hours at least once a week, talking to each one of his followers and anyone who came, and the feeling was unquestionable, and this was evident obviously not just to his family but to anyone who came, that when he spoke to you he wasn't concerned with the Chabad empire, he wasn't concerned with the community, he was concerned with you."
Chabad is an acronym for Hebrew words meaning wisdom, comprehension, and knowledge. Lubavitch is a Russian town where the movement had its headquarters for more than 100 years. Rebbe is a term for leader, and Rabbi Schneerson was the seventh Rebbe. As for the eighth? “We're waiting for a resume,” Rabbi Shemtov said. He added, “The humorous part is we didn't expect anyone to submit a resume. The factual part is we're still waiting” for a new Rebbe to step up — though the reverence for Rabbi Schneerson and his leadership remains a propelling force in the movement.
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