General Washington’s Christmastime Hanukah Blessing
By Paul Dowling
“I the Lord have called you in righteousness, and have taken hold of your hand, and kept you, and set you for a covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations.” – Isaiah 42:6
A Jewish Soldier Acts as a Light Unto the Nations
As American Jews who love liberty celebrate Hanukah this year, they would do well to recall a particularly special Valley Forge Hanukah that occurred at Christmastime in 1777. Dan Adler’s article “Hanukkah at the White House” recounts the tale of George Washington’s encounter with a Jewish soldier:
In December 1778, General George Washington had supper at the home of Michael Hart, a Jewish merchant in Easton, Pennsylvania. It was during the Hanukkah celebration, and Hart began to explain the customs of the holiday to his guests. Washington replied that he already knew about Hanukkah. He told Hart and his family of meeting the Jewish soldier at Valley Forge the previous year. (According to Washington, the soldier was a Polish immigrant who said he had fled his homeland because he could not practice his faith under the Prussian government there.) Hart’s daughter Louisa wrote the story down in her diary.
Even The Jerusalem Post has reported that the “winter of 1777 was harsh, almost unbearable. The soldiers stationed in Valley Forge had no inkling of why they were there. In their midst was a lone Jewish soldier and it was the first night of Chanukah. . ..” Continuing the narrative thread, Rabbi Susan Grossman has written the following: “Like generations of Jews before him, that soldier served as a ‘light unto the nations’ (Isaiah 42:6), bringing inspiration and courage to a nation in its birth pangs.
And he did so in a perfectly American way, a way in which a miracle did result, the miracle by which the light from one religion helps give comfort and courage to another” – just as the flame of the shamash, or “helper” candle, lights the other candles of the Hanukah menorah.
Hanukah Backstory: Jewish Patriots Fight for Liberty and Rededicate the Temple
Circa 168 B.C., the king of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes the Mad, foolishly implemented an agenda to stamp out religious freedom in Judea, thereby banning the worship of Yahweh. The mad king unwisely “marched into Jerusalem, vandalized the Temple, erected an idol on the altar, and desecrated its holiness with the blood of swine.” Mattathias Maccabee and his five sons led a revolt against Antiochus in what has been described as a “ragtag army of . . . simple farmers dedicated to the laws of Moses, armed only with spears, bows and arrows, and rocks from the terrain.”
These were the fighters who prevailed against a myriad of well-armed Syrian mercenaries. Ultimately, the Maccabees were able to reclaim the Temple on the three-year anniversary of Antiochus’ mad rampage. So, the Maccabees held a dedication (hanukah) of the Temple, in which they renewed its sanctity by performing a proper sacrifice to God, rekindling the golden menorah, and celebrating and praising the Lord for eight days. Although the Jews had only enough oil to burn for a single night, a miracle occurred: the tiny jar of oil burned continuously for eight days.
It is to commemorate this miracle that candles on the Hanukah menorah are lit at sundown to begin each day of Hanukah. Thus, Hanukah is often called the Festival of Lights.
Rabbi Sharfman’s Historical Account of Washington’s First Hanukah
Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman, author of Jews on the Frontier: An Account of Jewish Pioneers and Settlers in Early America, recounts the story of General George Washington’s Hanukah at Valley Forge, based upon an anecdote from the diary of Michael Hart’s daughter, Louisa, whose home Washington visited on December 21, 1778, while “en route from Valley Forge to an army base at Middlebrook, New Jersey.” (The dates cited by Louisa, although not exact, are very close to the actual historical dates, which have been respectfully corrected in this article by the author.)
Washington reportedly “was welcomed at the home of Corporal Michael Hart,” which is described as “a two-story stone building on the southeast corner of the public square, directly opposite the courthouse. His general store was on the first floor, his residence on the second. Michael Hart’s wife, Leah, prepared a kosher meal, probably complete with latkes ([potato] pancakes) in honor of the Hanukah festival, it being the sixth day of the holiday.” (Here a mild correction is warranted: December 21, 1778, would actually have been the eighth and final day of Hanukah that year, because Hanukah started at sundown on Sunday, December 13, 1778, and extended until sundown on December 21, 1778. The Jewish day commences at sundown, per Genesis 1:5, in which the evening is described by the author of the Torah as coming first: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”)
It is, of course, not uncommon for a diarist who is writing for herself alone to leave a date unchecked as to its accuracy. Louisa Hart’s account is of historical importance because it indicates that Washington’s visit to the Hart household came near the end of Hanukah, and it is also noteworthy due to the Hanukah story General Washington reported to the Hart family on that occasion.
Louisa would continue as follows:
Let it be remembered that Michael Hart was a Jew, pious; a Jew reverencing and strictly observant of the Sabbath and festivals, dietary laws were also adhered to although he was compelled to be his own Schochet [ritual slaughterer]. Mark well that he, Washington, was then honored as first in peace, first in war and first in the hearts of his countrymen. Even during a short sojourn he became, for the hour, the guest of the worthy Jew.
Sharfman writes that “Michael wished the general well in his future campaigns, expressing the hope that he, like the Maccabeans of old, would hammer and level the enemy as symbolized in the flattened [potato] pancakes enjoyed on the holiday.” Upon being told of the Jewish custom of giving coins to Jewish children, Washington presented Hart’s three sons with silver coins for the occasion which “became treasured mementos to the Harts, even as the chair occupied by George Washington became an honored piece of furniture.”
General Washington then proceeded to explain to the Harts “how the Hanukahfestival had inspired him during the previous year, when encamped at Valley Forge morale had sunk to its lowest ebb.” Due to the lack of warm clothes and footwear among Washington’s men, the severity of the winter had caused a feeling of despair to descend upon the commander-in-chief, and it was in this context that “a young Jewish private tendered the General a ray of hope.”
The soldier, an emigrant from Poland, was “proud to be a soldier for freedom and liberty.” As the story goes, “It was the night of December 25, 1777. Christmas Day had been observed glumly and after eating their rations the men were bedded down for the night – all except the Jew. [The first night of Hanukah – beginning on the 25th of Kislev, 5538, on the Hebrew calendar – would have coincided with the night of December 24th/25th, 1777, so Washington’s actual meeting with the Jewish patriot would appear to have taken place on the second night of Hanukah.]
In a corner of the drafty wooden shack that served as their barracks, as quietly as possible, he lit his menorah, an eight-branched candelabrum that he had carried with him from overseas in his knapsack ever since the war had begun.” As he lit his menorah, the Jewish soldier wept softly to himself, a detail that did not escape the notice of General Washington, as he was making his appointed rounds. Approaching the soldier and touching him on the shoulder, the general proceeded to ask, as an aide-de-camp looked on, “Why do you cry, son?” to which the soldier replied, “Actually, I am not crying. I’m praying with tears for your victory.”
The God of Israel Will Help
Per Rabbi Sharfman, the rest of the conversation went something like this:
“And what is this strange lamp?” asked the commander.
“This is my Hanukah lamp,” and the young man related briefly the ancient story – how long ago a small bedraggled but patriotic army routed a huge and powerful foe.
“You are a Jew, a son of the Prophets and you say we will be victorious?” the general declared, his eyes fixed on the flickering flames of the menorah.
“Yes,” the soldier unhesitatingly replied. “The God of Israel who helped the Maccabeans will help to build here a land of freedom for the oppressed.”
To the Harts, General Washington recalled on his luncheon visit when Hanukah was again celebrated, that the warmth of the glowing candlelight and the words of optimism and courage on that darkest night at Valley Forge uplifted him and gave him the fortitude to fight against all odds for victory.
So it was, during a grim time, that General Washington’s conversation with a prayerful Jew may have provided just the blessing he needed to muster the courage to persevere in his struggle to free an oppressed American people from the tyranny of yet another mad king.
As we Americans bless one another this holiday season in preparation for a year of working to restore our free republic, let each one of us seek to be a light unto the nations. Happy Hanukah!