Hanukkah, The Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday which commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration in 164 BCE by the ruling Seleucid (Greek-Syrian) king, Antiochus IV. It recalls The Maccabean Revolt caused by the harsh repression of the Jewish people by the Seleucids and celebrates the reestablishment of religious freedom for the Jewish people. The lighting of the Hanukkah candles symbolizes the triumph of the Jewish nation over oppression.
Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Tanach (Bible) because the events it commemorates occurred after the Tanach’s writing was completed. The historical background of the holiday is found in these external Jewish sources: Maccabees 1, Maccabees 2, Megillat Antiochus, and the writings of Josephus Flavius.
Here is a brief summary of the historical events:
In 200 BCE, the Seleucid King, Antiochus III, conquered the Land of Israel and incorporated it into his kingdom. While neither he, nor his son and successor, Seleucus IV, forced their Hellenistic culture on the Jews, his second son, Antiochus IV, who acceded to the throne in 175 BCE, instituted – with the active acceptance and support of many Jews – a policy of forced Hellenization and enacted harsh policies against those Jews who refused to adopt Hellenistic culture. Under Antiochus IV, Jews were forced to eat pork, and Sabbath observance and circumcision were made punishable by death. In 167 BCE, the Temple was defiled and dedicated to the Greek god Zeus, thus becoming the center of an idol-worshiping cult.
In 165 BCE, a popular revolt – led by Mattathias, an elderly priest from the town of Modi’in (east of Lod), and his five sons – broke out against Seleucid rule. Mattathias died soon thereafter, and was succeeded by his third son, Judah, also known as Judah Maccabee. Following an all out guerrilla campaign – as well as several victories over far larger, regular Seleucid armies – Judah’s forces liberated Jerusalem in the winter of 164 BCE. The Temple was cleansed and, on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, rededicated.
At that time, according to rabbinic tradition, when Judah’s men sought to relight the Temple menorah, or candelabra, only one day’s worth of pure, undefiled olive oil was found, but the limited quantity of oil miraculously burned for the eight days required for new oil to be pressed. Thus, the holiday of Hanukkah commemorates both the liberation of Jerusalem and the re-dedication of the Temple, and the miracle of the oil. In one of the blessings recited each night, the Jewish people praise God “who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this season.”
The name of the holiday, Hanukkah, is derived from the Hebrew verb “Hanach” meaning “to inaugurate, to dedicate and/or to educate”. In Israel, Hanukkah is a highly popular holiday. The central feature of its observance is the lighting of the nine-branched Hanukkiah (candelabra or Hanukkah menorah) at dusk or at night. On the first night, one candle is lit, with another one being added on each one of the successive nights until the eighth night when all eight candles are lit. The Hanukkiah has a shamash (guardian/server), the ninth branch which stands apart from the others and is used to light the other candles. Special blessings are recited prior to lighting the Hanukkiah candles. The Hanukkiah is traditionally placed in a window or doorway so that it is visible from outside and in that way it publicizes the miracle of the long time ago long lasting oil.
Families come together to light the Hanukkiah, sing songs, play with dreidls (spinning tops marked with Hebrew letters) and eat Latkes (potato pancakes fried in oil), jelly filled doughnuts and sometimes a Hanukkiah decorated cake!
All photographs for this blog post are by Isa David-Ben-Rafael and are owned by IsraeLightly.