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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Festival of Lights—Hanukkah

Note: This section was written, with a few edits, by my friend Aya Vandenbussche, who is from Israel.

In 167 B.C.E., Antiochus IV, the Sluaki (1) king who ruled Israel imposed cruel religious decrees against the Jewish people, which came to be known as the forced conversion. This was unprecedented in the history of western religion. The new decrees forbade the practicing of the Jewish religion, increased taxes for Jews and put the control over Jerusalem and the Holy Temple in the hands of the Greeks and those who converted. This was the first battle between a monotheistic and polytheistic religion. Most of the Jewish people remained loyal to their religion and belief, but there was a small minority who chose to convert.

The Hasmonaim, also known as the Maccabeem, were a brave Jewish dynasty and they decided to rebel against the Greeks, and fight for independence, and more importantly, to reclaim their Jewish identity. Old Mattityahoo (Mathew), leader of the rebellion, was about to die and he chose his youngest boy, Judah the Maccabee, to take over as leader of the rebellion. Judah the Maccabee was heroic and brave from a very young age and earned the nickname Lion Cub.
Judah the Maccabee had changed his fighting tactics and had learned the fighting ways of the Greeks. He knew how to use the mountains as shelter and planned surprise attacks on the Greek forces. It was Judah the Maccabee’s courage and wisdom that lead the Jewish forces to victory, despite their drastically smaller numbers.

Overjoyed at their victory and at having regained control over the holy temple, the Jewish people wanted to pray and give thanks to God, but the Temple was defiled, and needed to be renewed. Alas, the Jews could only find a small pitcher of pure olive oil, which they used to light the Temple’s Menorah. It takes eight days to prepare pure olive oil, and the oil in the pitcher would hardly last for a day. Worried and disappointed, the Jews used the oil in the pitcher to light the Temple’s Menorah and miraculously the oil lasted for eight days and eight nights (2).

There are those who say the pitcher of oil symbolizes the Jewish people in the story of the rebellion. The pitcher looked small and the oil, too little to last; so were the Jews, too few to overcome the strong Greek army, but just as the few defeated the many in the Hasmonaim’s Rebellion, so did the small pitcher of oil lasted for eight days.

The name Hanukkah means inauguration and refers to the inauguration of the Temple and the purification of the altar. To celebrate Hanukkah, we light a candle for each day that the olive oil maintained the light in the Temple Menorah (3). The Hanukia is where we put the candles. It is different from the Menorah and made specifically for Hanukkah.

The Menorah has only 7 candlesticks for each day of the week. The Hanukkia has 8 candlesticks and an extra ninth one (shamash (4)) that is lit at all time and with which you would light each candle. The Hanukkia needs to be lit near a window or where it is visible to everyone. It is meant to advertise the miracle of the oil and to let everyone know of the Hanukkah celebration. (It is probably the reason why Hanukkah is the most famous Jewish holiday). Hanukkah commences on the 25th day of the month of Kislev (November/December).

The eight days of Hanukkah are considered good days and are meant for celebration. Mourning, sorrow and repentance are not allowed during the Hanukkah days. We eat doughnuts and frittatas and all food that is deep-fried with lots of oil. The children play with the Dreidel, which has a Hebrew letter painted or carved on each of its four faces. Together they are the abbreviation of “Great Miracle Happened Here” if you celebrate in Israel or “Great Miracle Happened There” if you celebrate abroad. Phonetically, it’s “Nes Gadol Haya Poh/Sham.” It was customary to give children symbolic, low-value coins as extra allowance. Today, people give chocolate coins.

Finally Aya leaves you with the earliest Hebrew text that describes Hanukkah and the English translation to follow:

על הניסים, ועל הפורקן, ועל הגבורות, ועל התשועות, ועל הנפלאות, ועל הנחמות ועל המלחמות שעשית לאבותינו בימים ההם בזמן הזה... כשעמדה מלכות יוון הרשעה על עמך ישראל להשכיחם תורתך ולהעבירם מחוקי רצונך ואתה ברחמיך הרבים עמדת להם בעת צרתם... מסרת גיבורים בידי חלשים, ורבים ביד מעטים, וטמאים ביד טהורים, ורשעים ביד צדיקים, וזדים בידי עוסקי תורתך, ולך עשית שם גדול וקדוש בעולמך, ולעמך ישראל עשית תשועה גדולה ופורקן כהיום הזה. ואחר כך באו בניך לדביר ביתך ופינו את היכלך וטיהרו את מקדשך והדליקו נרות...

“Of miracles, and relief, and heroism, and salvation, and wonders, and the consolations and the wars you did for our ancestors in this time ... When the kingdom of Greece was a conviction against your people, Israel, making you forget your Torah and transferring your laws and your position, thy mercy while many inflicted it against you ... You gave heroes’ hands to the hands of the weak, and many hands in the hands of the few, and unclean hands in the hands of the pure, the wicked hands in the hands of the righteous, and wicked hand-dealers thy law, and you did great and holy in your world, and the people Israel, you performed a great salvation and release on this date. And then came you and your sons to your home, to clean your house, purifiy your temple and purge the holy and light candles ...”


Aya Vandenbussche.

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