Chanukah is coming!
FROM THURSDAY, December 7 to Friday, December 15, Jews around the world will observe Chanukah, one of the most important religious holidays in Judaism. It is inspired by the ‘miracle of the Maccabees’ and the ‘miracle of the oil’, collectively known as ‘miracles of light over might’.
The story started after Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem in 3448 (313 BCE). The Jews lived peacefully under the Greek rulers. When Antiochus III took over the reins of power, he, too, was good to the Jews. But when he was defeated by the Romans and was forced to pay excessive taxes, he passed on the burden to the people. Thus, began a cycle of oppression.
When Antiochus died, and his son Seleuces IV tried to sell the Temple’s treasure to pay the Romans, he was soon killed and his cruel and tyrannical brother, Antiochus Epiphanes, was elevated to rulership. By then, a Jewish Hellenistic movement was gathering traction. Many Jews embraced idolatry and self-worship.
Antiochus took the opportunity of this momentum to unify his Kingdom under a common Greek culture. He banned key Jewish observances, such as circumcision and Shabbat-keeping. He removed Yokanan, the high priest and replaced him with Jason, a Hellenistic Jew. He even sacrificed pigs on the Holy Temple’s altar. This did not go down well with some Jews.
Many Jews openly defied Antiochus and died as matyrs. But when he erected statues of Zeus and demanded that everybody worship them, the Jewish people revolted. In 3621 (140 BCE) the Jews fought a war for their religious freedom. Led by Matityahu and his five sons, a priestly family of the Hasmonean dynasty, the small army called itself the Maccabees, an acronym for a term that means, ‘Who is like you among the powerful, oh Lord?’.
The Maccabees were no match for the most powerful army in the world at the time. But, they won some early battles. The Greeks returned with bigger armies and armoured elephants. The battles became fiercer and the victories more miraculous as the Jews kept on winning.
In one case, a woman named Yehudit, who gained entry to a Syrian-Greek base camp, seduced its general, and stunted him with wine and cheese before killing him with his own sword. The Maccabees eventually chased the Greeks out of Jerusalem and declare their independence. Yet, when they entered the recaptured Holy Temple they found a melange of idols, forbidden foods and broken clay objects.
They removed the mess and rededicated the temple, only to come upon a new challenge. The temple’s six-foot menorah (lamp) had to be lit with pure, uncontaminated olive oil, but all the oil in the temple had been deliberately defiled by the Greeks. It would take seven days to get new oil from the orchards of Tekoah, but the Maccabees did not want to wait.
However, they found a jug of pure olive oil, still sealed with the insignia of the high priest, hidden under the floor, And, though it was a jug with just enough oil for one night, it miraculously lasted for eight days. Thus, Chanukah is celebrated as a ‘miracle of light over might’ with Jewish pride and joy. Chanukah is the story of light defying darkness, they say.
It is celebrated in a variety of ways, including the nightly lighting of the menorah, and the recitation of blessings. Menorah is the Hebrew for lamp, and is one of the oldest symbols of Judaism. It consists of nine candle-holders. The number of candles lit per night depends on the number of days into the holidays. And, since the miracle of Chanukah happened with the olive oil in the menorah, only oily foods, such as doughnuts and potato latkes, are eaten during Chanukah. Oil also symbolises the secret wisdom of the Torah known as Kabbalah.
During Chanukah, it is customary to give gelt (money) the children “to teach them to increase in charity and good deeds” and to add to the festive air. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (an influential orthodox rabbi of the 20th century) encouraged the admirable custom of gelt-giving each night of Chanukah, apart from Shabbat (the Sabbath). The most significant night to give is on the fifth night, the first night that there are more flames than darkness.
According to the Jews, Chanukah is a lesson in life, perhaps the most important lesson you will ever learn. One of the sources says, “The miracle of the oil seems minor in comparison to those experienced in battle. Yet, it is the one that we commemorate till this day, because it is somehow the most significant.”