Happy Hanukkah

The eight-day Jewish celebration known as Hanukkah or the Festival of Light commemorates the rededication during the second century BCE of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, This event was part of the Maccabean Revolt against the Greek-Syrian Seleucid Empire. Hanukkah, which means 'to dedicate' begins on the 25th. day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, usually falling in November or December. The holiday is celebrated with the lighting of the menorah, traditional foods, playing games, and presenting gifts.

History of Hanukkah

The events that inspired the Hanukkah holiday took place during a particularly turbulent phase of Jewish history. Around 200 B.C. control of Judea was taken from the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt by Antiochus III, ruler of the Seleucid Empire centred in Syria. He lowered taxes, provided grants to the Temple, and let Jews live "according to the law of their forefathers". His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, proved much less benevolent.

Ancient sources recount him outlawing the Jewish religion and ordering Jews to worship Zeus as the supreme god. In 168 B.C. soldiers descended on Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.

Led by the Jewish priest Mattathias ben Johanan and his five sons, a large-scale rebellion broke out against Antiochus and the Seleucid monarchy. When Mattathias died in 166 B.C. his son Judah, known as Judah Maccabee meaning 'the hammer', took the lead. Within two years Jewish forces had successfully driven the Seleucid forces from Jerusalem, relying largely on guerilla tactics. Judah called on his followers to cleanse the Second Temple, rebuild its altar and to light its menorah; the gold candelabrum whose seven branches represented knowledge and creation and were meant to be kept burning every night.

The Hanukkah Miracle

According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most central texts, Judah Maccabee and the other Jews that took part in the rededication of the Second Temple witnessed what they believed to be a miracle. Even though there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah's candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a fresh supply. This wondrous event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival.

Hanukkah Decorations and Traditions

The Hanukkah celebration revolves around the kindling of a nine-branched Hanukiah menorah. On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added to the menorah after sundown; the ninth candle, called the shamash (“helper”), is used to light the others. Jews typically recite blessings during this ritual and display the menorah prominently in a window as a reminder to others of the miracle that inspired the holiday.

In another allusion to the Hanukkah miracle, traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in oil. Potato pancakes (known as latkes) and jam-filled donuts (sufganiyot) are particularly popular in many Jewish households. Other Hanukkah customs include playing with four-sided spinning tops called dreidels and exchanging gifts

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Last modified: Tuesday, 30 March 2021, 11:08 PM