According to an entry in Wikipedia, “the first official White House Hanukkah Party was held on December 10, 2001, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, using a 100-year-old Hanukkah menorah that the White House borrowed from the Jewish Museum of New York.”
While it’s true that previous U.S. Administrations have recognized the Jewish ‘Festival of Lights’ in some meaningful way, such as in 1996, 2004 and 2009, when the United States Postal Service issued Hanukkah themed postage stamps in honor of the holiday, it was President Bush who began the annual reception, held at The White House, commemorating the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire.
The name “Hanukkah” derives from the Hebrew verb “חנך”, meaning “to dedicate”. On Hanukkah, the Maccabean Jews regained control of Jerusalem and re-dedicated the Second Temple.
Today, Hanukkah is celebrated with a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the 8-day holiday, some are family-based and others communal.
But what is Hanukkah really?
Well, according to Chabad, “when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious over [the Greeks], they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil… enough to light the menorah for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. On the following year, they established these [eight days] as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving to G‑d.” — Talmud, Shabbat 21b
And it is true that there were many miracles that assisted in the liberation of Israel, as a nation, from Greek dominance and the reclaiming of the second Holy Temple, but there is one particular miracle, the miracle of the small earthenware pot of pure oil that burned for eight days that we Jews commemorate each year.
So now back to the story… Why do Presidents celebrate Hanukkah early… Or do they?
A friend of mine in Israel called me very early this morning and while we talked we eventually got to the subject of Hanukkah (as you do this time of year) and she asked, “Why do the Diaspora celebrate Hanukkah early?”. The news in Israel is naturally about President Trump following his recent decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel and unsurprisingly, the fact that his Administration had marked Hanukkah five days early hadn’t escaped anyone’s notice. So I decided to look into this subject and discovered that since 2001 when this practice began, with the Bush White House, the ‘celebration’ has never begun on the first night of Hanukkah.
In 2001 President Bush spoke that the year had been a year of “much sadness” for America and for Israel – and that the people of both nations had grieved together. President Bush said, “But as we watch the lighting of this second candle of Hanukkah, we are reminded of the ancient story of Israel’s courage, and of the power of faith to make the darkness bright”. He then went on to pray for a “better day” – “when this Festival of Freedom may be celebrated in a world free from terror”.
During the last 17 years The White House has marked the occasion early only 5 times, about 30 per cent of the time, and I suspect this had to do with scheduling the many other events held at The White House each year. President Bush held one event 19 days early and President Obama missed the mark three times, 7 days, 10 days and 13 days.
- 2001 (December 10) Second night (Hanukkah began on December 9)
- 2002 (December 4) Fifth night (Hanukkah began on November 29)
- 2003 (December 22) Fourth night (Hanukkah began on December 19)
- 2004 (December 7) Fourth night (Hanukkah began on December 4)
- 2005 (December 6) 19 days early (Hanukkah began on December 25)
- 2006 (December 18) Fourth night (Hanukkah began on December 15)
- 2007 (December 10) Seventh night (Hanukkah began on December 4)
- 2008 (December 15) 7 days early (Hanukkah began on December 22)
But The White House Hanukkah reception in 2009 that took place on December 15, while timely (the Fifth night), was notable because President Barack Obama’s Administration sent out its invitations that made no specific mention of Hanukkah, instead inviting guests to a “holiday reception”. This would seem to me to be an intentional act and coming from the Obama Administration does not surprise me in the least.
- 2010 (December 2) Second night (Hanukkah began on December 1)
- 2011 (December 8) 13 days early (Hanukkah began on December 21)
- 2012 (December 13) Sixth night (Hanukkah began on December 8)
- 2013 (December 5) Eighth night (Hanukkah began on November 27)
- 2014 (December 17) Second night (Hanukkah began on December 16)
- 2015 (December 9) Fourth night (Hanukkah began on December 6)
- 2016 (December 14) 10 days early (Hanukkah began on December 24)
- 2017 (December 7) 5 days early (Hanukkah begins on December 12)
President Donald J. Trump’s Administration recently held the annual event (December 7) and as you would expect the lamestream media has been quick to point out that President Trump had previously lambasted President Obama for celebrating Hanukkah early and yet, they chided, he did the same in his first full year in the Office.
Well, I suspect that President Trump intentionally timed his Administration’s marking of the event with his decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, a miracle if you think about it and an act that took incredible Hutzpah (nerve, self-confidence) knowing, as he did, that he would be attacked by the media.
So why don’t some U.S. Presidents (e.g. President Obama) take more care when “respecting” our Jewish holidays? Well, perhaps it’s because they’re not Jewish, although more than a few Jews in the Diaspora (living outside Israel) would like to see the end of celebrating Hanukkah altogether…
From my perspective whether non-Jews mark this important Jewish holiday or not doesn’t really matter. Tomorrow evening is the first night of Hanukkah and each year we look for miracles during this time. My wish is that all Jews will remember our victories and the tremendous accomplishments that we have achieved throughout our history and that they try not to dwell, as so many people around the world do, on the unfortunate events that have happened as we work toward securing our freedom and our nation.