[Photo Credit: Moshe Chich‎]

More than 2000 years ago, during the period of the second Temple, the land of Israel was controlled by the Syrian-Greek Empire – by Syrian rulers of the dynasty of the Seleucids. During that period, many Jews living in Israel assimilated (became Hellenistic Jews). In the years leading up to the story of Chanukah, the Jewish population became increasingly more influenced by Greek culture. In an effort to fully strip the Jewish people of their rich and ancient Jewish heritage and to have them assimilate to Greek culture, Syrian-Greek officials under the reign of Antiochus, who was ruler of Syria, outlawed various forms of Jewish observance. Some of the harsh decrees against the Jews and their faith included the banishment of Jewish worship and Torah study, the confiscation and burning of Torah scrolls; making Sabbath observance, circumcision and adherence to Jewish dietary laws a criminal offense, punishable by death.

During these times of religious persecution, Jewish children continued to study Torah despite the great risk involved. When soldiers would investigate, the children would pull out a dreidel (the Jewish variant of the teetotum) and pretend to be in the middle of playing.

One day, years into the heavy oppression by the government of Antiochus and his Hellenist cohorts, the henchmen of Antiochus arrived in the village of Modiin where Mattityahu, the elderly cohen (priest), lived. The Syrian officer built an altar in the marketplace of the village and demanded that Mattityahu offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. Mattityahu replied, “I, my sons and my brothers are determined to remain loyal to the covenant which our G‑d made with our ancestors!”

Thereupon, a Hellenistic Jew approached the altar to offer a sacrifice. Mattityahu grabbed his sword and killed him, and his sons and friends fell upon the Syrian officers and men. They killed many of them and chased the rest away. They then destroyed the altar.

Mattityahu knew that Antiochus would be enraged when he heard what had happened. He would certainly send an expedition to punish him and his followers. Mattityahu, therefore, left the village of Modiin and fled together with his sons and friends to the hills of Judea. All loyal and courageous Jews joined them. They formed legions and from time to time they left their hiding places to fall upon enemy detachments and outposts, and to destroy the pagan altars that were built by order of Antiochus. Before his death, Mattityahu called his sons together and urged them to continue to fight in defense of G d’s Torah. He asked them to follow the counsel of their brother Shimon the Wise. In waging warfare, he said, their leader should be Judah the Strong. Judah was called “Maccabee,” a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Hashem, “Who is like You, O G‑d.”

After a series of miraculous victories by the Maccabees, the religious and observant Jews and cohanim returned to Jerusalem to liberate the city and once again worship G-d in his Holy Temple. The Maccabees entered the Temple and cleared it of the idols placed there by the Syrian vandals. Judah and his followers built a new altar, which he dedicated on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev, in the year 3622 (139 B.C.E.).

Since the golden Menorah (candelabra of the Temple that was used in daily service rituals) had been stolen by the Syrians, the Maccabees now made one of cheaper metal. When they wanted to light it, they found only a small jug of pure olive oil bearing the seal of the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) Yochanan. The jug contained only enough oil to kindle the Menorah for just one day of service. But by a miracle of G‑d, it continued to burn for eight days, until new oil was produced and made available for service in the Temple. This miracle proved that G‑d had again taken His people under His protection. In memory of this, our sages appointed these eight days for annual thanksgiving and for lighting candles.

This year, Chanukah will begin on at sundown on the night of Tuesday, 12 December and will go until sundown of Wednesday, 20 December.

During the festival of Chanukah, Jews have the following customs:

  • Lighting a Menorah each night: On the first night of Chanukah, two candles are are lit. One of these candles serves as a shamash (a candle with which to light other candles). On each subsequent night, an additional candle is lit, until on the eighth night, there are 8 candles lit (and one candle for the shamash).
    • While the candles are lit, many observant Jews will refrain from working for a short period of time.
  • Reciting the prayer of Hallel in the morning services: During the morning services a special prayer of thanks is given, marking the Jewish people’s thanks to G-d for the miracles of Chanukah.
  • Eating oily foods: Since one the miracles that occurred on Chanukah was the miracle of the jug of oil lasting for seven days longer than it should have, we have the custom of eating foods prepared with olive oil.
  • Playing dreidel: Playing dreidel is a way to commemorate the rebellion of the Jews, our ideals and our faith against the Hellenistic influences that threatened the Jewish tradition.
  • Giving Chanukah gelt (coins) to children: The source of the tradition of giving coins to children is unclear. The most popular explanation is that coins became a symbol of Chanukah because the ancient Jews’ ability to make their own coins was a symbol of the independence they gained in the battles that the festival of lights commemorates. Some opinions cite the reason for the tradition being that coins, like light, reflect potential.

During the rebellion of the Maccabim (the religious-Jewish fighters) over the Syrian-Greek Empire, the tiny army of Jewish fighters fought a series of battles against the stronger and far superior Syrian-Greek army and against all odds won each and every one of them. And so it is today as well, despite the strong enemies that the Jewish people and the State of Israel face, from hostile neighboring countries to BDS to the United Nations, the Jewish spirit and the Jewish faith remain strong and continue to prevail, against all odds. From all of us at Lev Haolam, we wish you and yours a warm, happy and beautiful festival of lights!

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Sources: Chabad.org, Aish.com and MyJewishLearning.com