Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hanyel Helf, the Hanukkah Visitor, Comes to Every Jewish Boy and Girl.

Listen, Hanukkah begins tonight. And for you that means a…story!

For centuries, children have gathered around their elders hoping to hear about the holy holiday forebear that today is a great big secret while we publicly celebrate our Festival of Lights with the menorah and such like. (“Forebear” is like “ancestor.”)

This Signalwriter post isn’t about the eight-day celebration commemorating the rededication of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple 2,200 years back. It’s not about the strength of the Maccabees whose fight led to that triumph – read all about that in the Talmud – nor the story of the oil that miraculously lasted for those eight days.

No, not even about the menorah and the dredl, though both of these are part of the real story of our celebration.

This is about the Hanukkah Visitor, Hanyel Helf – the angel of Hanukkah who has come to good Jewish boys and girls in the alleys of ancient Judean cities and the 19th Century shtetls of Eastern Europe, in New York’s Riverdale today and, yes, even in Texas. (Although you may not believe this.)

Hundreds of years before some jolly fat man was jammed into a red suit to become a mostly secular Christmas figure, Jews have known Hanyel Helf and kept him secretly in their hearts.

Maybe that’s because he could be an Angel of the Lord. Literally. Hanyel (Hebrew: הניאל‎, “Joy of God” or חַנִּיאֵל‎, “Grace of God”) is frequently identified as one of God’s seven archangels.

Now whether Hanyel Helf is really an archangel or even a man, well, the ancient sources are silent. But still, she or he is with us every day that Hanukkah is celebrated, visiting Jewish homes throughout the world.

He searches out each one of us – particularly the boys and girls – by the light of his menorah. (I told you I’d get back to this.) Then…then he spins the dredl.

Alright. Why does he spin the dredl? To determine just how you will be rewarded, or what you’ll be asked to contribute, in the Hanukkah days ahead. There are four Hebrew letters, right? Nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht or nichts (“nothing”). Hei stands for halb (“half”). Gimel for gantz (“all”) and Shin for shtel (“put”). Think of this as balancing out your life with rewards and contributions. No-Limit Texas Dredl doesn’t count although it’s good practice.

According to the scholars, Hanyel is supposed to be numbered among the Order of Principalities. Batting third in the angelic standings, the principalities are supposed to be caretakers over every nation on earth. So a little sharing doesn’t hurt that mission at all. That’s where the other name comes in – Helf or Helfe, for helping. Yes, that part’s Yiddish, sue me.

Not Santa Claus, see, but Hanyel Helf.

In what form will Hanyel Helf visit this Hanukkah? A literal angel of light and beating wings? An Iraq War veteran? A shaineh maidel? A deeply religious Hasid? It is possible you won’t immediately know Hanyel Helf when he comes. That’s alright, he will know you.

And so…happy Hanukkah!

*NOTE 1: The one-day world-spanning travels of Santa Claus are properly revealed as early High Church one-upmanship – it takes an archangel of God eight days to visit all the Jews and we are far fewer in number.)

NOTE 2: Oh, oh – can’t have Hanyel Helf visiting without a joke. A woman goes to the post office to buy stamps for her Hanukkah cards. She says to the clerk, “Please let me have 50 Hanukkah stamps.”

The clerk says, “What denomination?”

The woman says, “Oh my God, has it come to this? Give me 6 Orthodox, 12 Conservative, and 32 Reform.”

Thanks to Harry’s Black Hole for this, not such a fancy website but really funny jokes. Top photo: Group of Jewish Children with a Teacher, 1911, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Bottom: Shabbat, © Rob Swanson,

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