How does it make you feel when someone asks you to change something about yourself that isn’t broken or wrong? Do you feel anger rising up within because you are being told that something about yourself isn’t right? Do you argue and fight back?
That is exactly what happened to people of the Jewish faith during the reign of Antiochus IV. Out of fighting against this oppression came the celebration of Hanukkah.
How Did Hanukkah Become a Jewish Holiday?
The history of Hanukkah begins with the rule of Alexander the Great. Once Alexander was done conquering Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, he didn’t force Jews to convert or abandon their faith. Thanks to this freedom, Jews were able to assimilate into the Greek culture while still retaining a modicum of self-identity.
100 years later, under the reign of Antiochus IV, this freedom was taken away. Violently. Antiochus, living up to his nickname Epimanes (The Mad One), massacred many people of Jewish faith, placed a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, outlawed the practice of Judaism, and forced the sacrificing of pigs at Jewish altars, which is sacrilegious as pigs are non-kosher.
Two separate groups opposed Antiochus and fought against his despotic rule. The revolt succeeded, and the Temple was rededicated. During the rededication it was found that there was only enough oil to light the menorah for a single night, while the menorah was supposed to stay lit. In a minor miracle, the oil lasted eight nights, enough to allow for the making for additional oil, and to celebrate a festival was created, which we now know as Hanukkah.
How is Hanukkah Celebrated?
Unlike celebrations for Yom Kippur, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah has little religious significance. It is not mentioned in recognized Jewish scripture, and the story of its inception is recorded in the book of Maccabees, which is not recognized as scripture. The only observance made during Hanukkah that has a hint of religiosity is the lighting of the menorah.
Modern menorahs are made to hold nine candles: one for each night the oil lasted, and a shammus that is held in the menorah at a different height. On the first night a candle is place on the menorah to the far right, then the shammus is lit and three berakhot, or blessings, are said. After the recitation of these blessings, the shammus is used to light the single candle. Every night another candle is placed on the menorah from right to left, but they are lit from left to right. On the eighth and final night all nine candles are lit.
In addition to lighting the menorah, fried foods are consumed to signify the importance the oil played in the genesis of this celebration. These foods include latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jam-filled donuts). Another tradition is playing dreidel. The dreidel is a top with four sides, each one covered with a different Jewish letter: Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Shin. These four letters symbolize the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” which translates to “a great miracle happened there.”