home

The Story of Chanukah  

Anyone who has ever lit Chanukah candles with family or attended a Sunday school may be familiar with the story of Chanukah.  It celebrates the victory of the Jews over the Assyrians who had desecrated the Second Temple. In their wake, the Assyrians had destroyed all the jars of oil that were used to light the menorah in the Temple, except for one. And that one jar contained only enough oil to light the menorah for one night.  Except that there was a miracle – the oil lasted for eight days and nights – enough time to make more consecrated oil.  As a result, Chanukah (Hebrew for “rededication”) is also the called the Festival of Lights.  

Here is the back story:  In the second century before the Common Era, there was a blending of Hebrew and Greek culture in the Holy Land .  Many of the Jews were drawn to the Greek sense of rhetoric, poetry, and beauty.  And many of the Greeks were infused with the history, culture, and legal system of the Jews.   

Antiochus IV took the throne in Assyria, which then had domain over the Holy Land .  However, unlike his predecessors, he outlawed Jewish practice, conducted massacres against the religious sects, looted the Temple, and built an altar to Zeus in it.  There are some contemporary historians who assert that Antiochus actually sided with the Hellenized Jews who also wanted to end the old time Temple practices.  

Mattathias, a Temple priest, with his five sons -- Yochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah (known as Judah Maccabee – or Judah the Hammer) -- lead a successful revolt against Antiochus.  Mattathias died in 166 BCE .  A year later, under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, the Jews overthrew the Assyrian monarchy in the Holy Land .  

What is the source of the story of the Maccabean revolt?  Interestingly enough – the Book of Maccabees is in New Testament and not the Jewish Bible.  The story of the miraculous oil is from a different source completely.  It is from the Talmud.  There was even Talmudic discussion if we were to light the candles from one going up to eight over the successive nights of Chanukah (Hillel’s position), or eight down to one (Shammai’s).  Hillel prevailed.  

We celebrate Chanukah on the 25th Day of the Hebrew Month of Kislev.  It is a time for families to get together and eat food cooked in oil, such as latkes (the European tradition), or jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot – the Israeli tradition).  The children play with a four-sided spinning top called a dreidl.  The Hebrew letters on the dreidl are Nun, Gimmel, Shin, and Daled - an abbreviation for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham -- Hebrew for "A Great Miracle Happened There." We exchange gifts and, in synagogues, sing songs of praise to God.   By the way, the correct name for the candelabrum that we use for this holiday is chanukiah, not menorah.  A chanukiah holds 9 candles and a menorah only 7.