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History behind Chanukah

The eight-day Jewish celebration known as Hanukkah or Chanukah celebrates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. According to legend, Jews fought back against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. Hanukkah, which means "dedication" in Hebrew, begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar and usually falls in November or December. The holiday dates don't sync perfectly with the Gregorian calendar, so it has a "different" date each year. It is also referred to as the Festival of Lights.

The holiday revolves around the lighting of a nine-branched menorah, known in Hebrew as the hanukiah. On each of Hannukah's eight nights, another candle is added to the menorah after sundown; the ninth candle, called the shamash ("helper"), is used to light the others. Jews typically recite blessings during this ritual and display the menorah in a window to remind others of the miracle that caused the holiday. Potato pancakes (known as latkes) and jam-filled donuts (sufganiyot) are especially popular in many Jewish households. Other Hanukkah customs include playing dreidels and exchanging gifts.

The events that caused the Hanukkah holiday took place during a challenging phase of Jewish history. Around 200 B.C., Judea, which is also known as the Land of Israel. It came under the reign of Antiochus III (the Seleucid king of Syria), who allowed the Jews to continue practicing their religion. But his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, proved less benevolent: Ancient sources recount that he outlawed the Jewish faith and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. In 168 B.C., his soldiers attacked Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city's holy Second Temple. They did so by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.

Led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, a rebellion broke out against Antiochus and the Seleucid monarchy. When Matthathias died in 166 B.C., his son Judah, known as Judah Maccabee ("the Hammer"), took over. Within two years, the Jews had prevailed and successfully driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, relying mostly on guerilla warfare tactics. Judah called on his people to cleanse the Second Temple, rebuild its altar and light its menorah. The gold candelabrum, whose seven branches represented knowledge and creation, was meant to be kept burning every night.

According to the Talmud (one of Judaism's most central texts), Judah Maccabee and some other Jews witnessed what they believed to be a miracle during the rededication of the Second Temple. Even though there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah's candles burning for a single day. The flames continued lighting for eight nights, leaving them time to find a fresh supply. This great event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival.


Did you know? Hanukkah's story does not appear in the Torah because the events that caused the holiday happened after it was written. However, it was mentioned in the New Testament, in which Jesus attends a "Feast of Dedication."


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