Rabbi Allen S. Maller
When Jews kindle the Hanukah candles this year (Saturday evening December 24 to Sunday January 1) they will be celebrating two kinds of dedication. Hanukah (Hebrew for Dedication) celebrates the joyful rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, after it was profaned in 168 BCE by an idol installed in the Temple by the Syrian Greek king Antiochus IV.
Hanukah also commemorates the devotion and passion of the Maccabees, and all those who joined them in their resistance to the attempt by the ruling governmental powers to force Jews to abandon their God given religion, and conform to Greek forms of worship and culture by forcing Jews to become like the pagan majority in worshiping idols and abandoning circumcision.
In addition, this year, Christmas falls on the first day of Hanukah. So all of us, Jews, Christians and Muslims, who cry for all those who are suffering so terribly in Syria, Yemen and Iraq can learn from the Hanukah festival which holds out the hope that in the long run, faith and trust in God, will give the victims the strength to rebuild their lives after the Jahili leaders who crush innocent civilians will be gone.
Hanukah, the Festival of Freedom celebrating the duty to say ‘NO’ to the unjust demands of a dictatorial government, is still celebrated to this day in Jewish homes all around the world by reciting blessings, lighting candles, singing songs and retelling the ancient story in various forms.
The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the first known historical attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last. Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christians, and the persecution of Muhammad and his early followers by the majority of the Jahili pagan Arabs in his hometown of Makka.
All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lamp. A flame, once lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God, can last longer than all the powerful rulers of that time thought was possible.
The history: In 200 BCE, King Antiochus III of Syria defeated Egypt and made the Land of Israel a part of the Seleucid Empire. King Antiochus III wanting to conciliate his new Jewish subjects guaranteed their right to “live according to their ancestral customs” and to continue to practice their religion in the Temple of Jerusalem.
However in 175 BCE, his son Antiochus IV invaded Judea to put in power a pro Syrian high Priest. As the ancient Jewish historian Josephus relates: “The king came upon the Jews with a great army, took Jerusalem by force, slew a great multitude of those that favored Egypt, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy.
“He also spoiled the Holy Temple (erecting in the Temple an idol that looked like himself, and thus) put a stop to the daily offerings (to God) for three years and six months.”
The tradition: When the Temple in Jerusalem was looted and services stopped, Judaism was outlawed. In 167 BCE Antiochus IV (who named himself ‘Manifest God’) ordered an altar to Zeus be erected in the Temple. He banned circumcision and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the Temple.
This provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattityahu, a small town Jewish priest, and his five sons Yochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. They became known as HaMakabim (the Hammers).
In 166 BCE Mattathias died, and Judah Makabee took his place as leader. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was largely successful. The Temple was liberated and (Hanukah) rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted to celebrate this event.
The oil: Judah Makabee ordered the Temple to be purified, and a new altar built in place of the one polluted by pig’s blood. According to the Torah (Leviticus 24:2), pure olive oil was needed for the two menorahs in the Temple, which were required to burn day and night throughout the year.
However, there was only enough pure oil found to burn for one day, and it would take a week to prepare a fresh supply of ritually pure oil for the menorah. Some said: delay the Hanukah of the Temple for a week. Others said: kindle the Temple Menorah and trust that it would last until new pure oil could be made.
The menorah was lit; and it did not go out prior to the arrival of the new oil. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.
The eight days: In Biblical days the two most widely celebrated annual Jewish Holy days were the week long pilgrimage festivals of Passover and Sukkot-the fall harvest festival. Each lasted seven days, but Sukkot had an extra day attached to it making it a combined eight day festival.
When Prophet Solomon dedicated the First Temple in Jerusalem; the celebration lasted seven days, and on the eighth day the people went back home.
For three years, while the Temple was polluted by the Syrian Greek statue of the king, Jews boycotted the Temple. When the Makabees recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple Mount just eight weeks after the end of Sukkot, they purified the Temple and called it’s eight day (like Solomon) rededication ‘Sukkot in December”.
The lights: These can be candles or oil lamps. Most Jewish homes have a special candelabrum referred to as a Hanukiah, or an oil lamp holder for Hanukah, which holds eight lights plus the additional light used to light the others each day.
The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not to “light the house within”, but rather to publicly “illuminate the house without,” so passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle.
Only when there was danger of antisemitic persecution were lamps supposed to be hidden from public view, as was the case in Persia under the rule of the Zoroastrians, or in parts of Europe during Medieval times; and then again during World War II.