HISTORY

The story of Hanukkah is the struggle for religious freedom. Over two thousand years ago, the foreign rulers of the Israelites decreed that the Jews bow down to the image of their leader, Antiochus, whose statue was erected in the Temple.

But the Jewish people were forbidden by the law of God to bow to statues or idols. Inspired by Mattathias and led by his son, Judah, a small group of Jews called Maccabees (meaning “hammer”) rebelled. The Maccabees risked their lives to live according to Jewish law and to prevent this desecration of their sacred Temple. Although the Maccabees won, the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews’ holy place, was destroyed. The Jews had to clean and repair the Temple, and when they were finished they rededicated it to God by rekindling the menorah, the candelabrum symbolizing the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people and the continuity of tradition through the generations. But there was only enough olive oil to fuel the menorah for one night, and it would have taken eight days to make more oil. The legend of the miracle at Hanukkah says that the one day supply of oil burned for eight days and nights until more oil could be made.

There are eight days of Hanukkah corresponding to the legend of the miracle of the oil in the Temple. Foods cooked in oil are traditional, particularly potato pancakes, called latkes. Today, candles are used instead of oil. On each successive night, the number of candles lit increases by one. Prayers accompany the lighting of the candles.

Hanukkah is celebrated in the home beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Even though it is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, Hanukkah is widely celebrated as a major holy day of the Jewish liturgical calendar. Given its proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah has taken on importance in the United States and many other countries where Christmas has been commercialized.

It is traditional to give small gifts to children on each night of Hanukkah. The party atmosphere is enhanced with songs, games and toys such as a dreidel – a spinning top. Yet the religious celebration – the lighting of the candles with accompanying prayers – must come before the party.