Major VS Minor

Major and Minor Jewish Holidays

You might have heard that Chanukah is a “minor” Jewish holiday. As sometimes happens with people, Chanukah acquired the stigma of being ‘lesser than’ on the extraneous technicality.

Technically, Purim and Chanukah fall into the category of “minor” holidays, because they are rabbinic holidays, rather than Torah holidays. Truth be told, neither one of them are minor in real life.

Purim is based on events from the Book of Esther. Chanukah is based on events from the Book of Maccabees and the Talmud.

We hallow each day of Chanukah with special blessings and prayers in the Amidah (central Jewish prayer) and Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals).

Other rabbinic holidays are Tisha B’Av and Tu Bishvat (developed by 17th century Kabbalists).

Shavuot is a harvest festival in the Torah, that was completely reinvented from its original form by 16th century Kabbalists in Tzfat. Passover draws on a Torah narrative, but the Passover Seder as we know it is a rabbinical development.

More modern Jewish holidays are Yom Hashoah (1959) and Yom Hazikaron (1963).

The transformative age of rabbinical Judaism ensued after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples.

In Judaism we have Torah holidays, rabbinic holidays and post-rabbinic holidays. All aspects of Judaism have evolved over the millennia, including our holidays. Judaism has never been static.

Other religions have non-biblical holidays that are key and central to their faith.

I vote for disposing of the major/minor labels. Chanukah, which rivals Passover in popularity, holds major status in the hearts of the people.

The Jewish people found ways to celebrate Chanukah in the death camps and amid the horrors of the Holocaust. For them it was never minor. For them we kept it and increased it.

Chanukah menorah carved in secret inside Theresienstadt in 1942 from wood stolen from the Nazis (The Jewish Museum)

Chanukah Major

“Outside of the technical framework of Jewish law, Hanukkah is a major Jewish holiday. We have really done ourselves a disservice by using the term minor.”

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York City

I agree with Rabbi Olitzky. Chanukah is always singled out as “minor,” with the added poke that we pumped it up to compete wtih Christmas. To quote Rabbi Tzi Freeman on the subject, “it’s unclear what makes this lamentable.” I concur, why is this old, tired trope still a topic? Why does it matter? Every Jewish holiday is a testament to our survival. Live it out loud.

Chanukah in Israel is not in competition with Christmas and yet it is an extravaganza of week long festivities. Schools close for the week and the streets are alive with striking Chanukah light displays, vendors, food, scrumptious sufganiyot (jelly donuts), plays, theatrical productions, live music, singing, and public candle-lightings.

Artisan sufganiyot (a traditional Chanukah treat) Roladin Bakery, Israel
Chanukah dreidel display in Jaffa, Israel.
Light show in the Old City
Lighting the giant Chanukah menorah at the Western Wall

My dear people, can we just accept that we love the festive freedom of Chanukah? Unlike Torah holidays, commerce and all worldly activities are permitted on Chanukah, inviting us to make our winter holiday as big and bright as we want it to be. It’s our Winter Festival of Lights; it’s our holiday without restrictions.

Chanukah was always a public holiday until it was forced underground for centuries, due to ethno-religious persecution.

Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson started a campaign in the 1970’s to light highly visible and prominent Chanukah menorahs in public places.

In December 2015, Turkish Jews wept with awe and joy when the first Chanukah menorah lit up the stage in Istanbul’s historical Ortaköy Square. For generations present, Chanukah 2015 was the first time they saw Judaism practiced in public. The same thing happened in Budapest, Hungary.

Minor VS Major Labels

Non-biblical religious holidays are not unique to Judaism. Some of the biggest religious holidays outside of Judaism (i.e. Christmas, Advent and Easter), are not biblical, but it doesn’t make them ‘minor’ or one bit less significant.

I thought of Chanukah as a metaphor for the labels people put on us. Like some people, it got arbitrarily singled out as lesser than the rest and subtlety judged for living out loud. Living out loud is living a genuine life that is joyful and purposeful to you, without being diminished by other people’s opinions.

You were never meant to be ‘minor’ (lesser than), no matter what criteria someone else says you need to be great.

You were never meant to be made small or shamed for your joie de vivre.

Chanukah is big in fanfare, heart and spirit because we uphold it and raise it up to shine brightly.

It’s the same way with people. We have the power to raise up those of us feeling “minor” in visibility, worth and status and help them to shine brightly. Sometimes we need validation and interpersonal fanfare to be as big and bright as we can be.

In all ways, it’s a mitzvah (Divine deed) when it comes to people and holidays to shelve all minor/major labels.

© 2022 54 Portions/The Wild Pomegranate Tree

Chanukah and Hanukkah are interchangeable, transliterated spellings.Hanukkah” is now the more widely used spelling, while “Chanukah” is more traditional and old school.

Sources/Photos/Reading Material:

Hanukkah In Israel by Cantor Evan Kent 

Letter from Israel: Chanukah Here Is the Bigger Deal

Hanukkah In Israel: Bein Harim Tours

Hanukkah Is Not A Minor Holiday

In Budapest, Hanukkah Comes Out of the Shadows

Best Hanukkah Celebrations Around the World

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24 thoughts on “Major VS Minor

  1. I trust you had a wonderful Holiday…. And I am loving learning more about your Beliefs and the cultures which accompany them.. I am totally with you when you said..
    “You were never meant to be ‘minor’ (lesser than), no matter what criteria someone else says you need to be great.”
    So true… No one is beneath another or above… ALL are what LABELS we have given the so called Elites and so called lesser mortals.
    Language if we study it deeply enough has also been highjacked in how we use words…
    ” Understand!” a great example… for we Stand Under no one..

    I do hope you have had a lovely Holiday Season Avigail and I wish you a very Happy And Joyful 2023…
    Much love. Sue ❤

  2. I don’t claim to know about your belief system, Avigail. Yet this post is beautifully written first of all, and second of all, I can understand it is high time we throw away the labels for they only bring division and confusion. What is, IS. I know personally how I feel when a label is slapped on me which is not a positive experience. Walking forward as ONE people, let us all learn to do away with the conditioning and the structure others put upon us in order to live freely and in the way we choose.

    I hope my comment validates some of what you wrote, dear friend. Thank you for being you!! xo

  3. Thank you so much for your brilliant commentary on Chanukah. You are willing to throw out the “labels” that define us and our holidays. Our Chanukah is not a subordinate holiday. We thrive when we celebrate Chanukah. It is a “major” holiday. We enjoy beautiful lights, rituals and delicious donuts and latkahs. We get to play draydel and sing up a storm. We laugh joyously as we interact with this amazing holiday. You are a scholar and a gentlewoman. You are a wonderful Rabbi, Abbi. You have the courage of your convictions. You do not run with the crowd but you are willing to take a risk to help the rest of us. Thank you for taking one for the team. You are an exquisite person both inside and out.

    • Thank you in abundance for your inspiring words. I am humbled and grateful! The words you used, “thrive” and “interact,” correspond with how the Chazal described our relationship with every Jewish holiday. We are to interact with it, thrive with the essence of it in our own way, and determine what potential and awarenesses it holds for us. 🖖

  4. I think the distinction came from those mandated by our religious worship in accordance with Torah, and those not mandated in Torah, but are more celebratory. I do concur that I don’t like the distinction of minor and major. But, it does separate the ones we do because they are required as part of our religion and are emphasized as such, and those not required. I can see why the Rabbis want that distinction. But, I do think the so called minor holidays deserve distinction as a part of our culture and to be joyous occasions celebrating who we are as a people. In my home, we take pleasure in lighting the Hanukkiah each night and saying the prayers, as well as getting together with family and a gift exchange. We have been through some difficult times as a people, both in the distant past and in recent history and we should be proud and celebrate our heritage and that includes our fun traditions, as well as religious ones!

    • Hi Phil. The thing is, the rabbinic holidays of Purim and Chanukah are mandated, legalistic, and official Jewish holidays on the Hebrew calendar with their own mitzvot.

      Shabbat mitzvot (lighting the candles and reciting the blessing over them, the Kiddush and HaMotzi) originated rabbinically in the Talmud. Yet they are the holiest mitzvot we can perform in Judaism. The Passover Seder as we know it is also rabbincial in origin.

      We’ve been in the age of rabbinic Judaism since the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, so rabbinical laws, mitzvot and holidays are official observances integral to Judaism.

      The Mitzvot we are obligated to fulfill on Purim are: Reading the Megillah, sending out mishloach manot, partaking of the Purim Seudah, and Matanot La’evyonim.

      The Mitzvot we’re obligated to fulfill on Chanukah are: Lighting the candles for eight days outside our homes as a reminder and advertisement of the miracle, reciting Hallel in celebration of the rededication of the Temple and the miracles of the victory over the Seleucid army, reciting Prayers of Thanksgiving (extra paragraphs in the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon), and thanking God for the miracles brought for us.

      The only reason Chanukah is in the Siddur but not the Torah is because the Maccabean revolt, victory and rededication of the desecrated Temple (Chanukah), happened after the Torah was written and finalized.

      I thank you for your readership and comment and I’m very happy you find meaning and joy in all Jewish holidays.

        • Always a pleasure to dialogue with you. I appreciate your readership, your engagement and your zest for learning. It’s a hallmark of Judaism to never stop studying, learning and growing in Judaism. There’s always something new to learn, even for lifelong Jewish scholars. The dynamic of teaching and learning is perpetual.🖖

  5. Well, I see I inspired a post with my inquiry. 🙂

    I was all but certain that story I mentioned was biased against religion in general and antisemitic specifically, BUT I never assume I know it all and thus asked how the holiday was viewed. 😉

  6. I’ve generally heard the “Chanukah is a minor holiday” in the context of comparison to Christmas (for context, I live in the USA) and, while I never personally felt this way as a child, there’s a thought that Jewish kids feel slighted because Chanukah is so much smaller compared Christmas – one answer to that being, well, Chanukah is also a holiday of minor religious significance. But I think you make a good point that regardless, we should still be celebrating it with as much celebration as we please!

    • The whole minor thing started because it’s a a rabbinic holiday, not a Torah holiday, that falls around Christmas. Christmas is a non-biblical holiday as well, so Christmas and Chanukah share that commonality. Last line is it in a nutshell…we should be celebrating it with as much celebration as we please! I agree with the rabbis quoted in my post. To paraphrase a post by R’ Tzvi Freeman, as very tiny fish in a very large diaspora pond why not make a big splash? Tis the perfect season to make a big deal out of our unrestricted (by prohibitive halacha) winter holiday. When I was a kid my aunt festooned her home with Chanukah decor, strings of Chanukah lights and brightly wrapped presents. She went all out and I loved it! Let’s fuss over our kids on our holidays. Let’s make our holidays big, bold and festive. As long as we enjoy it and create happy memories it’s all good. Many thanks for reading and commenting. 🖖

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