Around 200 BCE (before the common era), Jews were living as an autonomous people in Israel under Greek rule. Twenty-five years later, Antiochus Epiphanes looted the Temple in Jerusalem and massacred Jews. He ordered a statue of Zeus erected in the Temple and sacrificed pigs on the altar, a great affront to Judaism that forbids the consumption of pork. Antiochus effectively outlawed the practice of Judaism.
A Jewish revolt broke out, led by Judah Macabee, whose name means Judah the Hammer. The Macabees defeated the Greeks and restored Jewish sovereignty. Judah then ordered the Temple cleansed and rededicated.
The primary message of Hanukkah is religious freedom. When the Greeks outlawed the practice of Judaism and desecrated the Temple, the Macabees fought back. As Jews, our history of persecution instills in us a strong sense of the importance of protecting our religious freedoms and the liberties of others as well. As Jews in America, we are very fortunate to live in a country that protects the freedom to practice one’s faith.
When the Macabees rededicated the ancient Temple, they went to relight the menorah, the ritual candelabra. There was only enough olive oil to last for one day. However a miracle occurred and that small jar of oil kept the lights burning for eight days.
Many of the customs and rituals of Hanukkah recall the miracle of the oil. We light a menorah (also called a Hanukkiah) for eight nights, adding one candle each evening. Jewish tradition teaches that the Menorah is to be lit near a window so that people walking by may see it and recall the miracle. On Hanukkah, we also eat latkes, small potato pancakes fried in oil, to recall the miraculous small jar of oil. My favorite recipe for latkes is one part onion to one part potato.
Hanukkiah or Menorah from wikipedia.org
The miracle of the oil is also a powerful symbol of hope. Just as the light lasted much longer than expected, so too have the Jewish people lived on for millennia despite difficulties and persecution. One Hanukkah song begins: “Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years.”
The light of the menorah is also a symbol of God’s presence and enduring relationship with the people Israel. Like the light of the menorah, God has been with the Jewish people for over three millennia, helping and guiding us through good times and bad. While Jews have a relationship with God, we also believe that God cares for all people.
On Hanukkah, children play a game called dreidel, spinning a small top and wagering on which side the top will fall with gelt, chocolate coins. The four Hebrew letters on the dreidel spell out the phrase: “A great miracle happened there,” referring to the jar of oil that burned for eight days.
Dreidel from wikipedia.org
One final custom of Hanukkah is the giving of gifts to children, right after the menorah is lit. As Hanukkah falls in mid to late December each year (depending on the Jewish calendar), the holiday has become in many ways about giving and receiving gifts. As a child, I remember the excitement I felt the day of our family Hanukkah parties each year and all of the presents from my parents, aunts and uncles.
However, Hanukkah is not a time only for gifts. It is a powerful and ancient Jewish celebration that reminds us of the importance of religious freedom, and gives us hope for the future of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer