Who knows the story of Chanukah? Most of us know about the Jewish people's miraculous victory over the Greek army. You also may know about the miracle of the tiny drop of oil that burned for eight whole nights. But the story of Chanukah is actually a story that is deeply rooted in our history: it's a story of the Jewish people's courageous fight against their enemies from the outside as well as the inside. It was the story of a war against persecution, as well as assimilation.
When Antiochus III, King of of Syria defeated Egypt, he took control of Judea and the Jews within. At first, the Jewish people were allowed to practice their religion freely -- both on an individual level as well as on a communal level, in the Temple. It was a relatively peaceful for the Jewish people. However, if we know anything about the history of the Jewish people, we know that peace is short-lived.
Peace was cut short when Antiochus IV and the Greeks overpowered the Syrians -- they invaded Judea and took control of Jerusalem and the Temple. Antiochus IV banned ritual circumcision, and he ordered that pigs be burned at the altar of the Temple. Just as intensely devastating as the religious persecution from the Greeks, however, was the internal conflict that was building between the religious Jews and those who were influenced by Greek culture – Hellenized Jews.
What we know about the war and the miracle of Chanukah, we learn from the historian Josephus and the books of the Maccabees. Matityahu and his five sons, the Maccabees (not to be confused with the Maccabeats), lead a revolt against Antiochus IV. Matityahu begins his epic rebellion by killing both a Greek official and a Hellenized Jew, who is about to make a sacrifice to a Greek god, Zeus. When Matityahu dies, his son, Judah takes his place as the leader of the revolt. Under Judah's leadership, they are able to finish what Matityahu began -- the liberation of the Temple and Jerusalem, and freedom for the Jewish people.
In addition to this astounding military victory, the festival of Chanukah celebrates a spiritual victory. When the Jews rededicated the Temple, the High Priest only managed to find one pure jar of oil. However, the oil miraculously lasted for eight nights – just enough time to have new oil pressed and ready for lighting. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.
Today, we commemorate the story of Chanukah with celebrations and festivities:
Lighting the chanukiyah (colloquially known as a menorah), like the lighting that the High Priest did in the Temple.
Eating fried foods (the more oil, the better!), so pass the latkes and donuts!
Playing the game of dreidel, which involves a 4-sided top with different Hebrew letters on each side. Some people play to win gelt, a yiddish word for money. But often times we swap out the actual cash for chocolate. It may also be a ritual worth noting that many people get fat on Chanukah ;-)
In our prayer services, we add two daily prayers: Hallel, a song of joy and thanksgiving, is added to our morning prayers, and we add Al Hanisim, a prayer thanking God for the miracles performed for us, to our Amidah, the height of the prayer service.
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