The Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria and the Selucid Empire (175-163 B.C.E.), was both cruel and arrogant—typical of tyrants. The title he chose for himself, Epiphanes, is Greek for “god-manefest.” One of the unfortunate provinces under his rule was Judea. He became persuaded—probably by some Hellenized Jews—that the Jewish religion was the root cause of the widespread opposition to the process of Hellenization. He undertook the first systematic effort to wipe out Judaism.
In addition to a bunch of other heinous actions, he ordered his soldiers, and compelled the Jewish population of Jerusalem, to sacrifice pigs at the Temple—the most sacred site in Judaism. (To Jews, swine is considered ‘unclean.”) Antiochus’s oppression sparked a revolt, successfully led by the Maccabee family. It is from this revolt, and a subsequent incident, that the holiday of Hannukah came about.
The Books of Maccabees are the most famous volumes in the “Apocrypha”—the legends that are part of Jewish teachings. These are historical writings about the revolt against the Syrian monarch by the Jews . But they do not mention the “miracle” upon which the celebration of Hannukah is based.
The Temple (Solomon’s Temple, the first Temple) in Jerusalem, as it was:
The Celebration of Hannukah
Hannukah is not a religious holiday, but a secular one, in that there is no Jewish law requiring us to celebrate it–yet it is the most widely observed Jewish holiday in the United States. The reason for this is singularly un-Jewish: It occurs in December, right around the time of Christmas. Due to the fact that the Jewish calendar is a lunar one, Hannukah can actually occur any time between late November and late December, depending.
Because Western Jews live in a predominantly Christian society, and because of Hannukah’s proximity to Christmas, many parents have converted it into a Jewish form of a major Christian holiday. Hannukah is, after all, one of our happiest holidays.
Back to the Jewish revolt against Syria in 167 B.C.E. and the Maccabees. As I said, the Syrians defiled the holiest place in Judaism, the Temple. After the revolt against Antiochus was successful, the revolutionaries regained control of Jerusalem. As recorded by the historian Josephus, the Jewish troops wept when they saw the Temple’s degradation, and resolved to restore it to ritual purity. According to Jewish tradition, they could find only one cruse of uncontaminated olive oil—only sufficient for one day’s use. This was a big problem, as it would take eight days to prepared ritually permitted oil. However, so the legend says, a miracle happened and the small amount of oil continued to burn the entire eight days. To commemorate this event, Hannukah is celebrated for eight days.
We use a menorah—a candelabrum that has eight level openings and a ninth, raised opening. While the original used oil, today most people use candles. Here’s a classic example, but there are literally thousands of designs:
Jewish law requires that the candles be placed near a window, so that they can be seen from the street, because the rabbis of old declared we should “publicize the miracle.” You can use any kind of candle, even tea lights, but as far back as I can remember these little colored Hannukah candles – found in almost every supermarket, in almost every neighborhood around this time of year–were ubiquitous and have come to symbolize the holiday for me. I couldn’t find a photo of the candles, but this is the box:
A popular children’s game s spinning the dreidl, which is a kind of top:
On each side, a Hebrew letter is printed: Nun, Gimmel, Hay, Shin, which makes the acronym “Nes Gadol Haya Sham—A Great Miracle Happened There [in Israel].” ( In Israel, it says “Here.”) Bets are made on which letter will be face-up when the dreidl stops spinning; depending on the bet, the spinner either takes the pot, half the pot, puts money into the pot, or no one wins. Originally, the bets were made for nuts (as in walnuts!), but today we use chocolate candies wrapped to look like gold coins, called Hannukkah Gelt (gelt is Yiddish for money.)
OK, now back to Christmas. It’s not part of the old Hannukah tradition, but if we really want to keep it popular among our kids, gifts have to be part of it. And we up the ante considerably; we give the kids presents on each of the eight nights. LITTLE presents! (And maybe one really good one.)
Among American Jews, the latke, a fried potato pancake, is the traditional food eaten. Because the Hannukah story concerns oil, most of the holiday foods are fried. (This is the only part of the holiday my Chinese husband can get behind.) In Israel, they prefer a jelly donut. Another creeping (but highly discouraged) tradition is the so-called “Hannukah Bush.” This is only for those most assimilated families, or those of mixed religions. There is no two ways about it—it’s a Christmas tree pretending to be Jewish.
[LOL! I looked for a photo of a Hannukah Bush and this is representative of what the Google search engine came up with]:
A Small Dose of Spirituality
Most people who have read a little about Kabbalah probably know that this mystical tradition of Judaism talks a great deal about light—what it calls the Endless Light. The Kabbalah teaches that through our actions we draw and increase this divine light into the world or diminish its presence. ( I feel the need to stop and emphasize that these teachings are in no way connected to the Kabbalah Centre, where Madonna and other celebrities study “kabbalah.”)
According to Jewish law, when we light the Hannukah menorah we are prohibited from using its light–from reading by it, or doing some other task by it. Instead, we are supposed to simply look at the light. All year long we are looking at what we see in the light, but on Hanukkah we are to focus on seeing the light itself. We are to fill our eyes with the light of Hanukkah so that when Hanukkah is over, we will continue to see our lives in this special light. What is special about the light of Hanukkah?
When King Solomon wrote in his famous work, Ecclesiastes, “everything is vanity . nothing is new under the sun” he was talking about what it is like to see the world in the light of the sun, in the light of nature.
But the Zohar, the chief work of Kabbalah, teaches us everything is new when seen in the light beyond the sun.
The light of Hanukkah is the light beyond the sun, it’s the light beyond nature, it’s the light of miracles. In that special light, the world looks like a miracle.
Albert Einstein once said: “There are two ways of looking at the world—either you see nothing as a miracle or you see everything as a miracle.”
Hannukah reminds us to see everything as miraculous.
Hannukah began at sundown on Friday December 11, in the year Hebrew year 5770.