When the Greek Empire began collapsing in 323 B.C.E, the rulers of Palestine launched an effort to replace monotheistic Judaism with the pagan beliefs of Greek mythology. Jews successfully resisted until 175 B.C.E, when King Antiochus came to power in Syria. Antiochus launched an invasion of Palestine, looting the Temple and threatening death any Jew who refused to bow to his idols. During the 10 years of occupation, a resistance movement formed.
Led by Judah, a small but dedicated force known as the Maccabee fought a bloody gorilla war against the Syrian occupation force. In 165 B.C.E., ten years after the invasion, the Maccabee seized the defiled Temple and rededicated it to God.
The Talmud reports that the group that recovered the Temple could only find one cruse of oil with the unbroken seal of the High Priest (only this oil could be used to light lamps in the Temple). The oil, which should have lit the temple for just one day, lasted eight days. The next year the tradition of an eight-day festival of thanksgiving and recitation of the story began.
For their entire history, Jews have faced the possibility of their own destruction. From ancient times into the present, Jews have been attacked, segregated, exiled and killed for their beliefs. The theme of the story of Hanukah – persecution, resistance, and survival – has tragically been repeated through history in the Inquisition, pogroms, and the Holocaust. Through thousands of years of persecution, the celebration of Hanukah has reminded Jews of the price to be paid to preserve their heritage and identity.
The modern celebration of Hanukah begins at sunset December 22 and ends at sundown December 29. During the eight-day festival (mitzvah), families come together to feast and pray.
When the sun sets on the first night, the family gathers to light the first candle on the hanukkiya, an eight branched menorah. Beginning on the second night, an additional candle is added until the total reaches eight. Each night, two prayers are said: one over the candles and one about the history behind the celebration. Hanukah is a holiday that centers on the family rather than the synagogue community.
In countries where Christmas rituals dominate December, some elements spill over into the Hanukah celebration. It is important to remember that Hanukah is not a ‘Jewish Christmas.’ Christianity grew from a Jewish heritage. Hanukah can challenge for Christmas for holiday fun, however. Family members exchange gifts; Hanukah has its own songs and games. Perhaps the most well known is the dredle. The dredle, a top made of clay has Hebrew characters engraved on its sides and a song is sung while it is spun.
In some ways, the celebration of Hanukah in America is more appropriate than in Israel. In Israel, the 52-year-old Jewish state created from Palestine, Hanukah is a national holiday. Work and school is canceled so everyone can participate in the festivities which include parties and a relay run to the Wailing Wall, the remains of the Temple recovered 165 B.C.E.
In America, however, Hanukah is overshadowed by the Christian majority’s Christmas celebrations. As Jews have for so long, American Jews who celebrate Hanukah are working to preserve Jewish culture and identity.