Hanukkah is the Jewish “festival of lights”, celebrated for 8 days and nights by lighting a menorah in each Jewish home. Full of its own traditions, customs and foods, it is arguably the most universally celebrated Jewish holiday. But, what exactly are we celebrating?
Like most Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is based on a paradigmatic event in Jewish history. Long ago, the Land of Israel was ruled by the Greeks. Sharing a mutual respect for wisdom, the Greeks originally allowed the Jews to continue practicing their religion, however eventually Jewish observance was outlawed under penalty of death. and the Holy Temple was turned into a pagan sanctuary.
Led by the Jewish priest Matthias and his five sons, a large-scale rebellion broke out in what is called the world’s first ideological war, a tiny force of ill-equipped and untrained rebels against the professional Greek army of up to 40,000 men. Relying largely on guerilla warfare tactics, the Jews eventually re-captured Jerusalem. When they entered the Temple, they discovered only one container of pure lamp oil that was used to light the Menorah had not been defiled by the Greeks. They used it light the menorah and miraculously it stayed lit for eight days, by which time fresh pure oil had been pressed and delivered to the Temple.
The Message of Hanukkah Today
Along with the miraculous military victory, Hannukah celebrates the timeless spiritual victory of Jewish values over those of Greek culture which we celebrate this time of year. Similar to the Maccabees long ago, by kindling the Chanukah candles, we generate light which illuminates the darkness, a metaphor for our actions which sanctify the material world and reveal G-d’s presence, which was there all along.