Hanukkah story

Posted by Yevgeni Kuritski on 21st Dec 2014

Hanukkah is a very important holiday in the Jewish calendar. However, apart from the lighting of the nine-branch menorah and parts of the story about the oil in the Temple which was supposed to last for just one day and instead lasted for eight days, not many people are aware of the whole story and significance of Hanukkah.

But Hanukkah is more than this, beginning with the very word which means ”dedication”. Essentially, Hanukkah refers to the re-dedication of the Jerusalem Temple in the aftermath of the Jewish victory against the Syrians in 165 B.C.

The Hanukkah story goes back in time to the time of Alexander the Great, who is known to have conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine. However, he allowed the peoples under his rule to continue observing their religions in an autonomous manner. Although there was no pressure in this regard, many Jews assimilated some of the Hellenistic ways of living.

Decades later, in 168 B.C., under the rule of Antiochus, oppression against the Jews began when the Syrian –Greek gained control of the Jerusalem Temple and dedicated it to the worship of Zeus. Although this disappointed the Jews, they did not have the courage to openly protest against it, fearing reprisals. Then, in 167 B.C., Emperor Antiochus went a step further and declared that the celebration of Judaism would be considered an offense punishable by death sentence. This meant that Jews would have to start worshiping Greek gods.

Such a course of events had the role to build up a Jewish resistance against the Syrian –Greek. The movement of the resistance began in a village close to Jerusalem- Modiin. It was here that during a public gathering, the Greek soldiers told the villagers to pay their respects to an idol and eat pork meat – both actions are not allowed in Judaism.Seeing that none of the villagers cooperated, the soldiers attempted to force High Priest Mattathias to perform the two as an example for the rest of the population. Confronted with his refusal to do such things, one of the villagers offered to do it for him. This outraged the High Priest who took his sword and killed the villager and along with his five sons and the villagers managed to kill all the soldiers. Within this rebellion two major opposition forces emerged. One gathered around the figure of Mattathias and his son Judah. The second group was a religious traditionalist one, known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees. Both groups eventually joined forces against the common enemy.

After the Modiin rebellion, Mattathias had to go into hiding in the mountains, together with his family, where they were soon joined by other Jews seeking refuge and looking forward to unite forces against the Greeks. In time, this resistance managed to defeat the Greeks. The name taken by the rebels was that of Maccabees or Hasmoneans. This name came in fact from their leader in battle – Judah the Strong, also called ”Maccabee”, appointed byMattathias before his death. The name of ”Maccabee” is a combination of the initial letters of the Hebrew expression ”Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Hashem” meaning ”Who is like You, O God”.

In his attempt to remove the Maccabees, Antiochus sent two military expeditions, which failed hopelessly. The third expedition comprised an army of 40.000 men commanded by Nicanor and Gorgiash and the heavy fighting took place in Mitzpah, where Prophet Samuel offered his prayers to God.

Gradually, the Maccabees managed to gain control of the territory against the Syrian –Greeks and returned to Jerusalem only to find the Temple defiled by the latter through their sacrifices of swine and the worshiping of gods. They removed all the idols and built a new altar, which was dedicated on the 25th of Kislev. The golden menorah which existed prior to the Syrians in the Temple was missing (probably stolen and melted down by the Syrians) so Judah and his people built a new one, of cheaper metal.

In order to purify the Temple from the traces of the Greeks, the Jews decided to light the menorah and let it burn for eight days. However, while looking for the oil reserves, they only found little oil, which should have lasted for just one day. Surprisingly, that little oil lasted for eight days and this is the miracle commemorated upon Hanukkah. As a result of this event, the common practice nowadays is to light a nine-branch menorah during this time of the year. The ninth branch is situated in the middle of the menorah, higher or lower than the rest of the branches and is used in the lighting process: one branch is lit per day, until all eight are lit at the same time. This special menorah is called a ”Hanukkiyah”.

After the Hanukkah miracle, the priests began officiating the old ways, preparing the offerings and it seemed that order had been re-established.

The importance of the holiday stems from the miracle of the oil. Also, due to its temporal proximity to Christmas, it received additional glamour. Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Due to the fact that the Jewish calendar is a lunar one, the date of Hanukkah differs from one year to another. Yet, it is mostly celebrated in a period of time between late November and late December. Given that it comprises most of December and that many Jews live in Christian communities, Hanukkah began being celebrated as a form of Jewish Christmas, in order for the Jewish children not to feel left aside. As a result, it is common for parents and relatives to offer presents to their children on every night of Hanukkah. Nevertheless, the practice of giving presents is limited to their own family, as there is no practice of changing gifts between Jews and Christians

Among the other traditions present on Hanukkah are the spinning of the dreidel and the eating of fried foods (the use of oil is symbolic as well, sending yet another reference to the oil of the Temple).

In the Jewish year 5775 (2014), Hanukkah is celebrated between December 16th and December 24th. Next year – 5776 (2015), it will be celebrated between December 6th and December 14th.