Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah) begins on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month Kislev. Since the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, the first day of Hanukkah falls anywhere between November 28th and December 26th.
Hanukkah’s origin is post-Moses, pre-Jesus and during the division of Alexander the Great’s empire. A two-year battle lead up to the eight miraculous days of Hanukkah.
Part 1: Under Oppression
Around 200 B.C., the Seleucid Empire ruled Judea ( southern Israel). The Syrian King (Antiochus IV Epiphanes) outlawed Judaism because he wanted Jews to worship Greek gods. The Jews loved that idea more than Hercules loved Hera.
That’s sarcasm. Hercules hated Hera because she was a resentful mother. It’s a Greek mythology joke, folks.
In 168 B.C., Antiochus sent an army into Jerusalem. Soldiers massacred the citizens, desecrated the holy Second Temple, built an altar for Zeus and sacrificed pigs on it.
A Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons rebelled. In 166 B.C., Mattathias died and his son Judah took over. People called Judah “the Hammer” because he was shaped like one. Just kidding. He was a good fighter. At least, that’s why some think he got the last name “Maccabee” which means hammer.
It took two years and a lot of cave-dwelling, but Judah and the rebels finally drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem.
Note: Some historians believe a civil war erupted between the Syrian-accepting and traditional Jews, which started the rebellion.
Part 2: The Menorah Miracle
After reclaiming their city, Judah and his followers had to cleanse the Temple. Inside was a seven-branched candelabrum, called a menorah. The Menorah required olive oil to burn every night, and most of the supply was defiled by the Syrians. There was only enough to burn for one night, yet miraculously, it burned for eight.
That was enough time to prepare a fresh supply, which by the way is very difficult. My roommates recently harvested olives in Italy. You literally cast giants nets on the ground, wait for the trees to drop the fruit, hand-gather the olives and process them. I can only imagine how difficult it must’ve been two thousand years ago. Appreciate that bottle!
To commemorate this miracle, there was an eight day celebration. Since the Jews were rededicating the Temple, they called the festival “Hanukkah” which means “to dedicate.” The name could also come from “chanu” (rested) and “kah” (twenty-five) because they rested on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. Oh, and its also called the Festival of Lights.
Note: Some historians believe Hanukkah may have been a belated celebration of the seven-day festival Sukkot, which follows Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the year for Jews and the Day of Atonement).
Part 3: Traditions
The menorah symbolizes enlightenment, with the seven lights representing human knowledge. Six of the branches symbolically connect to the central light of God. Some say the menorah also symbolizes the creation in seven days, with the center light being the Sabbath (Sunday), or that they all represent planets.
I wonder about that last theory’s acceptance, universally.
For Hanukkah, Jews light a special nine-branched menorah called the Hanukiah. Each night (or Friday’s before sunset), one of the eight branches is lit (from left to right) with the central attendant candle, the shamash. The menorah is placed in the home’s front window, so people see the lights and remember Hanukkah’s meaning.
It also lets people know which doors to knock for good baba ganoush recipes.
Along with the recital of Torah readings, blessings and hymns, other common traditions include eating oil fried foods, potato pancakes (latkes) and jam-filled donuts (sufganiyot). Families donate to charities and children are given “gelts” (small money gifts). In fact, that’s what spinning the dreidel is all about!
A dreidel is a toy top marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin, which stand for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” (“a great miracle happened there.”) The letters also stand for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which are the rules.
The game varies, but how the dreidel lands determines your move. You will either add coins, collect all coins, take half of the coins or do nothing. You play until someone has them all, like pokemon.
Part 4: A Holiday Perspective
Believe it or not, Hanukkah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday without any restrictions on work or school. Generally speaking, it hasn’t changed much, and it’s growing popularity can be attributed to the “holiday season.” Because of its proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah has seen a lot more American consumer activity.
Of course, that’s what we do in America. We sell things you don’t necessarily need, like decorations or Snuggies. Or the Shake Weight?!
It’s nice to know that Jews (the ones that still practice) have kept a two thousand year-old tradition going strong. Hanukkah does not just remind people what they fought for, but embraces the miracle of light in Jerusalem’s Second Temple.
And if that doesn’t drive the point home, maybe Judah Maccabee can hammer it in for you.