Is it really minor, though?
How often have you heard this: “Chanukah’s really a minor holiday. We only make a big deal because it’s so close to Christmas, so we don’t feel left out.” Or, “It’s only in the 20th Century in North America that Chanukah became a big deal.” Often, it's coupled with a criticism of rampant gift-giving and decoration. (There’s a good – and non-judgemental – article about it here: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-american-style/)
Is Chanukah really minor, though?
It’s probably arguably true that the gift-giving and parties became a bigger deal recently. But that doesn’t make it a minor holiday.
There are different ways to classify Jewish holidays
Holidays can be classed by type. If holidays are only considered major if they’re pilgrimage festivals, then clearly Chanukah is not, because there are only three: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. It’s a pretty narrow and counter-intuitive definition, though: what about the High Holy Days?
They can be classed by when and how they originated: Either Biblical, Rabbinic, or post-Rabbinic.
When we say Rabbinic, we are talking about the Rabbis who undertook to interpret, codify, and extend Jewish law after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, roughly 100 – 600 CE. Under this classification, Chanukah is Rabbinic: although the story takes place in what we might call the “Torah universe” or in Biblical times, it isn’t actually created as a holiday until the Rabbis do so. So, Chanukah could be either.
According to Shiva.com, Jewish holidays are Major because of their place and position in Biblical history. It lists Chanukah as one of the ten major holidays that fall into this category. (The others being Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, Purim, Pesach, and Tisha B’Av.) I'm not sure why, maybe because although the Book of Maccabees didn’t make the cut in the Tanakh it is in the Apocrypha, and it was written about events surrounding the Temple in Jerusalem, and so is Biblical in nature., (Here’s an interesting article about the possible reasons Maccabees aren't part of the Tanakh: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/omitting-the-maccabees/)
In this rubric, a holiday is Minor if it is Rabbi-created (Tu B’Shevat, Purim Katan, Shushan Purim, Lag B’Omer, Selichot, Pesach Sheni, and the days of the Omer). But once again, you could argue that since the Rabbis actually created it, Chanukah is minor. A separate class is modern that is, post-Rabbinic: Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron and Yom Yerushalayim fit here.
We could also argue for classifying the holidays by whether they are event-based (I won't say historic...but that's another blog). Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, Tisha B'Av, Shavuot and the modern holidays mark events in our collective life story. Or joyful or solemn.
But all that gift-giving! That isn't in keeping with Chanukah's importance
We can’t argue that the ostentation is probably a pretty modern innovation. But according to Wikipedia, giving money (gelt) goes back to the 1600’s, when parents gave their kids money to give to their teachers. At that point, it didn’t take long for parents to be giving their children money, too. By the 1700’s poor yeshiva students were visiting rich Jews’ homes at Chanukah to get gifts of money…with their rabbis’ approval.
We'll continue this discussion in our next post. In the meanwhile, let's celebrate that Chanukah is coming!