Sign In Forgot Password

Join the Rikkud: Dance the Chanukah Haka

12/01/2019 11:29:56 AM


Ilana Axel, Cantorial Leader

What is to be done when a small tribe fighting against a larger military force wishes to prevail against all odds? We might ask our friends in New Zealand. They invented the haka. If you’ve never seen a haka you might want to go right now to the internet and type in There you can see a performance of a war haka from the Maori tradition known as Ka Mate, Ka Ora. The words translated mean: It is death! It is life! You might find yourself chuckling. You might feel a bit uncomfortable. You might feel intimidated. You might be inspired. All are common responses to the Haka.

Rabbi Google describes the haka as “a type of ancient Māori war dance traditionally used on the battlefield, as well as when groups came together in peace. Haka are a fierce display of a tribe's pride, strength and unity. Actions include violent foot-stamping, tongue protrusions and rhythmic body slapping to accompany a loud chant. The aggressive facial expressions were meant to scare the opponents, while the cry itself was to lift their own morale and call on God for help to win.”

Different tribes of the Māori (indigenous people of New Zealand) once fought one another, and Ka Mate, Ka Ora was written by a tribal chieftain whose smaller tribe was in peril of being utterly destroyed. He survived, as did his chant and the haka he created to lift up his people and challenge the enemy. Today there are many types of haka, for funerals, for weddings, for both welcoming and warning strangers, and, famously around the world, for rugby matches. Indeed, its proponents point out that tiny New Zealand, when fielding its national rugby team the “All-Blacks” against the teams of larger nations, find their strength to prevail through the haka. Watch a haka performed by the All-Blacks. Just keep surfing there on youtube. It is an entire world that I’ve became addicted to while researching this article (though I haven’t bothered to actually watch the games, as I prefer Australian Rules football).

Are we really so much more modern and sophisticated than our kiwi fellows? Noting the weird similarity between the words Ka Mate / It is death and KaMavet / It is like death, in Hebrew, I was then struck how our Kaddish prayer, like the haka, celebrates the triumph of life over death due to a belief in divine strength. I began thinking about the “haka” that helped the Maccabees triumph over the larger forces of Seleucid Greeks in the 2nd century BCE. Did our ancestors dance some sort of Chanukah Haka?

As with the haka, they created tight, small, cohesive units of fighters in militaristic arrays.

As with the haka, they grew stronger by binding individuals into a group with common purpose.

As with the haka, they maintained and displayed their unique culture throughout their struggles.

As with the haka, they called out bonding chants. The most famous we know of forms the basis for the name MaCCaBEEMi Chamocha Ba’eilim Adonai (adonai represented by the letter “yod” now transliterated as “ee”). Who is like You among all the gods, Adonai?

Who is like You, indeed? Who has created such diversity upon the earth, yet all bound together by a unity within humanity? This is in itself a miracle. May we live in an age where the cries of survival and cultural ascendancy are transmitted on rugby fields and by the lights of the chanukiyah. Join the rikkud! We hope to see you as we dance our own Chanukah Haka together at our Shabbat Lights & Miracles service on December 27 at 7:00 PM. Happy Chanukah to all.


Tue, June 25 2024 19 Sivan 5784