December 14, 2001

The Story of Chanukah

HANUKKAH - The Festival of Lights

25th of Kislev

The festival of Chanukah celebrates the Jewish peoples' struggle for religious freedom. The festival has been observed, in Israel and the Diaspora, sometimes even at the risk of life. The story behind the holiday, of how the menorah in the Holy Temple miraculously stayed lit for eight days, with very little oil, is recounted each year as we light the Chanukah candles.

 

History and Meaning

The story of Chanukah actually begins in the year 336 B.C.E. when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire which included Judea (modern day Israel).

The Jews' relationship with Alexander was long fruitful. Alexander promised the Jews that his empire would not interfere with their religious practices both in Judea and in the Diaspora. He exempted the Jews from the royal tribute and invited them to participate in the Greek army which showed that their loyalties were not suspect.

After the death of Alexander, Judea was ruled by Ptolemies of Alexandria. During this period many of the Jews were influenced by the ideas of Hellenism and began to assimilate the Greek culture. It was at this time that King Ptolemy, to promote a better understanding of the Jews, commissioned the famous Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint.

Later, the Ptolemaic Empire of Egypt and the Sleucid Empire of Syria fought to gain control of Judea. The Selucids won. Judea was ruled by the Syrian king Antiochus IV who did not allow the Jews to freely worship one God. He demanded that everyone bow down to the many idols of Greek religion.

A strong-willed old priest named Mattathias grew increasingly outraged with the Syrian dictate. He stirred up the passions of his people, urging them to fight against the religious oppression. With his five sons and a band of Jewish settlers - mostly farmers and shepherds - Matthathias fled the town of Modin, outside Jerusalem, are gathered the `troops in the Judean Hills. Here, Mat-thathias's son Judah the Maccabee ("The Hammer") took over as leader of the small army and led the men in guerrilla warfare against the Syrian army.

Judah's brilliance as a fighter and commander cannot be overlooked. Against all odds, and after many battles, the Jews gained victory over the Syrian soldiers.

When the Maccabees and their army returned to Jerusalem they found their Temple in ruins. They scrubbed, cleaned and put it to order again. On the 25th day of Kislev, Judah called the people together to re-dedicated the Temple.

When it came time to re-light the Menorah only one small jar of oil that had not been defiled by the Greeks could be found within the entire Temple. It would take an eight-day round trip journey to obtain new pure oil. But the high Priest, determined to rededicate the Temple even if the menorah could be kindled for only one day, lit the menorah. The next day, to everyone's amazement, the menorah was miraculously still lit. The oil burned for eight days, until a new supply of oil could be brought. The community rejoiced, thanking God for his favor.

To honor this occasion and the spirit of free thought, Jews around the world have celebrated Chanukah every year since then.

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