Note: Today's Chronicles of Chanukah will cover the history and meaning of the holiday. Watch for future posts with directions on celebrating the holiday including lighting candles, playing dreidel (the spinning top gambling game), making latkes (potato pancakes) and more. I was going to include it all in one post, but I just started writing about the history, and, well, the post just kept getting longer and longer, so I split it up. One more note before we begin -- this is my synthesis of many sources and Jewish traditions and my beliefs. It does not represent any one Jewish outlook.
Shedding Some Light
First, the full background of Chanukah (how I usually spell it if no one is checking) or Hanukkah, the more modern transliteration of the word, is probably not the one you know.
Most of you probably already know the story of the Maccabees' successful rout of the Syrian Greek forces, despite their weapons of mass destruction -- the elephant troops. The temple was ruined and there was only enough oil for the eternal light to stay lit for one night. Miraculously that tiny bit of oil lasted eight nights until the supply could be replenished. So goes the story of Hanukkah and a legacy of oil-fried holiday goodies was born in remembrance of the event that some have called the world's first religious war.
But befitting a holiday whose name has so many possible spellings, there is more than one story behind Hanukkah.
A more scholarly interpretation doesn't detract from the Maccabees' win over the religious and physically oppressive Hellenic forces which conquered Judea, but it does point out that it was a form of civil war, with Jews unwilling to assimilate with the conquering and occupying forces not just fighting the invaders but Jews that were willing to cooperate. The actions of the Syrian Greeks were probably destined to cause a revolt. They included taking the Temple over for Zeus, forbidding Jewish worship and observance and, according to some sources, defiling Jewish brides. The revolt began in 167 BCE (some place it at 164 BCE), ending up with many Jews perishing as the rebels began to fight against those who had accepted the Hellenic rule.
Observance of this feat worried religious authorities. As the royal dynasty that arose from the Maccabees developed, they became uncomfortable with its mix of priestly and militaristic aspects and sought to not diminish the Maccabees' accomplishments, but to change the focus. Years after the Maccabees' victory, the story of the long-lasting oil began to be linked to the temple re-dedication (a detail which was not mentioned in earlier tracts), which helped ensure that memories of the event kept a spiritual core separate from the Maccabees.
Various reasons are given for the Maccabees' instituting an eight-day festival. Some sources say the celebration lasted eight days to compensate the people for the inability to celebrate the fall harvest festival because of the war. But that festival, Sukkot, is only seven days, unless you include the one-day holiday that immediately follows it. Other sources point to older religious practices and the holy connections of the number eight in Jewish tradition.Hanukkah remains a technically minor holiday, one that is not included in the Torah (Bible) and one that is barely mentioned in the Talmud (collection of ancient writings on religious law and authority). It has become a symbol for a religious group's pride and a commercial equivalent of Christmas for some. Interestingly, some scholars think the timing of the holiday has much to do with ancient winter solstice celebrations and human need for light at the darkest points of winter.
Hanukkah is mostly celebrated in the home. Because the Jewish calendar follows the lunar cycle, the dates of the celebration vary. This year, the first night is Friday, December 15th. Hanukkah lasts for eight nights.
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