The History of Chanukah
Chanukah is celebrated for eight days starting the 25th day of the month of Kislev (November/December). It commemorates the victory in 165 BCE of the Jews over the Seleucid Empire, which was then ruling over the Land of Israel. They had revolted in response to attempts by the ruling Hellenist Syrians to prevent them from practising Judaism. Following their victory, the sons of the priestly Hasmonean family which had led the Jews in their revolt entered the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, removed all traces of idol worship, and rededicated it to the service of God. Known as the Maccabees (from the Hebrew word for ‘hammer’) the rebel army then celebrated the first Chanukah. (‘Chanukah’ is the Hebrew term for inauguration.)
The Talmud, the body of Jewish oral law, relates how the Judean heroes, led by Judah Maccabee, were making ready to rededicate the Temple and were unable to find undefiled oil to light the seven-branched golden Menorah. They finally came upon a small cruse of oil which had remained sealed and thus pure. Under normal circumstances it would have been enough for only one evening but miraculously it kept the Menorah lit for eight days – until new oil could be obtained. This is the miracle commemorated by the kindling of the Chanukah lights.
Lights, Symbolism and Blessings
The most important observance associated with Chanukah is the kindling of the lights on the nine-branched chanukiyah. On each night one more light is kindled, beginning with one candle on the first night of Hanukkah and ending with eight on the final evening. The lighting is accompanied by the recitation of appropriate blessings and the singing of songs. The ninth branch is reserved for the shamash, the servant light, which is lit first and used to kindle the other lights of the chanukiyah. The chanukiyah is placed in the window or in a special glass-fronted cabinet outside one’s home in order to publicise the miracle being commemorated.
In a broader sense, however, the Chanukah light symbolizes the light of religious, national and cultural freedom won by the Maccabees for their people. It gave new force to the faith that had waned under the influence of Hellenism; Jewish culture began to flourish again. Also the Hebrew language, which had been largely supplanted by Greek, came into its own once more.
The Chanukah lights should be kindled as soon as possible after nightfall. On Friday the lights are kindled before the lighting of the Shabbat candles. Before kindling the lights the following blessings are said:
- Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech ha-olam a-sher ki-de-sha-nu be-mitz-vo-tav ve-tzi-va-nu le-had-lik ner Cha-nu-kah.
- Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha-olam she-a-sa ni-sim la-avo-tei-nu ba-ya-mim ha-heim bi-zman ha-zeh.
- Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha-olam she-hechi-ya-nu ve-ki-yi-ma-nu ve-higi-a-nu liz-man ha-zeh. (On the first night only.)
- Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.
- Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.
- Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.
Source : Transliteration and translation courtesy of www.chabad.org
Chanukah is a joyful family festival. Some have the tradition of exchanging gifts, parties are given, children play games, and latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (doughnuts) are served. These are delicacies made with oil to recall the miracle of the oil in the Temple more than 2,000 years ago.
The children play dreidel, a game of luck. The dreidel has four sides, each bearing a Hebrew letter – nun, gimmel, hey, and shin – the initials of “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” meaning “a great miracle took place there”. (In Israel, the shin is replaced by the letter pei for ‘po‘, meaning ‘here’.)
Each player begins with an equal number of game pieces (usually sweets such as chocolate coins). At the beginning of each round, every participant puts one game piece into the centre “pot”. Every player puts one in the pot after every turn. Each player spins the dreidel once during their turn; depending on which side is facing up when it stops spinning, they give or take game pieces from the pot. The Hebrew letters engraved on the four sides of the dreidel later came to stand for the conditions of the game in Yiddish (a dialect spoken by the majority of Jews in Europe and Russia).
The struggle of the Hasmoneans against the Syrian-Greek oppression was an example of Jewish heroism, a war of the few against the many, of the subjugated against the powerful. But the Jewish People were not merely seeking to free their historic homeland from foreign rule; they were struggling for their spiritual continuity. Their religion, the very essence of Jewish existence, was threatened with annihilation by a dominating, antithetical civilization.
When celebrating Chanukah, Jews all over the world are still mindful of the analogy between the Hasmoneans’ resistance to Hellenism and the modern-day dilemma of the Jewish People wanting to preserve their faith and traditions whilst surrounded by different cultures and religions.