The Origins of ChanukahToday, Chanukah is often perceived as the Jewish Christmas, an alternative for Jews so that they, too, can exchange gifts and sing songs. But nothing could be farther from the truth, which is that the origins of Chanukah far predate Christianity. Chanukah is not central to Judaism as Christmas is to Christianity. Littlest known of all is that the Chanukah holiday was born of blood, darkness and death. The lights of Chanukah came only after a long and bitter tyranny in which many Jews were killed. But perhaps the Chanukah lights burn all the brighter in contrast to the preceding darkness.
“A Great Miracle Happened Here”
During the period of the Second Temple, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV ruled in Judea. During that time, a struggle was emerging between the Hellenized Jews and their opponents. Some historians believe that it was in an effort to quell potential civil war that Antiochus began his campaign against the practice of Judaism. He broke down the walls surrounding the Holy Temple and demanded that a pig be sacrificed within its sanctuary. Mothers who circumcised their baby boys were thrown from the city walls. The study of Torah was outlawed on pain of death.
The Hasmonean Judah Maccabee led a rebellion against the king, and after some years was ultimately victorious. But until then the bloodshed and devastation was immense. When at last the war came to an end, the Jews reclaimed their Temple. They sought to light the Temple’s golden menorah, but were required to do so with only the purest olive oil, and Antiochus’ soldiers had broken the seals on all the oil jugs.
All but one—a single oil jug with an unbroken seal was discovered amid the debris. With this oil, the Jews lit the menorah, and legend tells that it burned for eight days. For this reason, Jews celebrate eight days of Chanukah, adding another candle each day until on the eighth day, eight candles burn brightly together.
Why Celebrate Chanukah?
One might wonder why Chanukah has endured as a holiday for thousands of years, if it merely represents a celebration after a victory. There are many opinions regarding the lasting importance of Chanukah, some of which are rooted in the mysteries of Kabbalah.
But the most basic reason is that victory being celebrated has symbolic significance that transcends its time: It is a victory of spirituality over materialism, in a time when spirituality was rapidly losing ground. The lights of Chanukah are the lights of faith glowing in the darkness that surrounds it—a sharp reminder of immortal transcendence, and of the unlikely survival of Judaism throughout the ages.
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