Believe in the improbable.

Find that small light in the darkness.

And if that light does not yet exist,
then take it upon yourself to create one.

a kid lighting a chanukiyah

Chanukah / חנוכה means dedication. We commemorate the rededication of the Temple, recall the successful revolt led by the Maccabees, fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the special candelabrum we call a חנוכיה / chanukiah - each night adding one more candle over the course of eight days…

But even today we might start by asking: what and why…is Chanukah? Indeed, even the Talmud started off with this question - "Mai Chanuka?". Typical of our holidays, this festival has been an evolving interaction through history - dependent on who is doing the celebrating, where and when, and therefore what "speaks to you" most insistently in those contexts. So at various times, Chanukah has lent its voice and example to such themes as freedom, assimilation and identity, martyrdom, miracles and faith, fighting against the odds, abuses of power, light and darkness, hope…

Traditionally, this is actually a minor chag [holiday] in what is quite a rich Jewish calendar. In the Western world though, Chanukah has become probably the most well-known celebration simply due to seasonal proximity: having been pressed into service as either direct cultural counterbalance to Christmas, or even more poorly redefined as some presumed Jewish version of it. Given the festival's very raison d'etre and message of identity preservation versus assimilation, this has created a somewhat odd juxtaposition to say the least. [We look at that issue more in our "Let's Talk About It" section.]

Chanukah, like Purim, is a rabbinically mandated festival (as opposed to older chagim which were Biblically ordained). It is one of the most historically documented festivals. While not based on the Bible itself, our sources do include Apocryphal [non-Scriptural] literature - the First and Second Books of Maccabees, writings of the first century Jewish historian- Josephus, accounts in the Talmud (mostly its latter part, the Gemara) and other rabbinic literature, as well as Megillat Antiochus [The Scroll of Antiochus].

Celebrating revolt - or a miracle?

The miracle of Israel reborn

The holiday's particular emphases depend to no small extent on which work you are reading and the context of the times it was written in. Megillat Antiochus, for example, goes more into themes of martyrdom stories – like about Eleazar or Hannah - likely due to prevailing persecutions typical of medieval times. Eleazar the aged scribe had refused to eat pork and was tortured to death. Hannah and all seven of her sons refused to bow down to idols or eat pork (depending on the version of the tale), instead re-declaring faith in God. Thus, they too paid with their lives.

Some of these sources (the earlier ones) do not mention the story of one day's oil lasting eight days - until more oil could be purified - in the rededication of the Temple. Other sources shift the main focus more to Temple, "light" and miracle aspects, while glossing over the military and political history.

Reducing attention to the militant characteristics of the chag was due to changing needs of the particular Jewish population, such as to not offend whichever current foreign ruler. Another likely reason was the relatively short lifespan of the resultant semi-autonomous Hasmonean state - in fact, it lasted for less than 100 years - so it became a less central event over time. Moreover, that dynasty did not play out as some paragon of virtuous local governance - the Chashmonaim [Hasmoneans] could be characterized as often more instructive in strife-filled excesses and failures than anything else- both as rulers and in a poor re-combination of religious and political roles. While this packet doesn't address that subsequent history directly, we do recommend checking it out as an interesting read-on-the-side (especially given current events all around us in the world today).

modiin The modern city of Modiin

However, the initial revolt and national identity aspects of Chanukah have returned to some extent with events of the 20th century, such as the establishment of the modern State of Israel. Modiin was the hilly hometown of the Maccabees, and a new version of the city flourishes now as well. So, for but one example, there is a ceremony which starts off with a torch-lighting there. That torch is then carried by relay-runners all the way to Jerusalem to light a large chanukiah. To truly appreciate the miraculous, it's worth stopping a moment to realize that the relatively independent Jewish state brought to fruition finally by the Maccabees would be the last to be seen until the 20th century.

The historical events in a nutshell

matityahu Matityahu, an eldery Modiin priest
  • Alexander the Great took over Judea in 333 BCE. He did allow for cultural and religious autonomy while holding on to political and economic reins.

  • Upon his death ten years later, the Greek empire was split up between generals. Unfortunately, Palestine then was caught in a tug-of-war between two centers of empire- Ptolemy of Egypt and Seleucus of Syria, with the former holding some greater control for a stretch. However, the Seleucids finally wrested Palestine from the Ptolemies in 198 BCE.

  • Antiochus IV took over as Seleucid ruler of this Syrian sector of Greek empire in 175 BCE. There is actually some historical debate over whether he independentlyinitiated a campaign to thoroughly Hellenize Judea or was invited in by local factions to meddle in affairs. For there was already an ongoing power struggle between Hellenized Jews and traditionalist Jews, involving religious/cultural concerns and a contest over the High Priesthood. More generally, this meant that there was an atmosphere of simmering civil war already- with much social, political and economic gain at stake.

  • Whichever the real underlying catalyst, by 168 BCE Antiochus IV had reversed the previous more usual Greek policies, banned Judaism, looted the Temple in Jerusalem and caused a slew of massacres.

  • Active revolt erupted in 167 BCE, started in part by Matityahu [Mattathias] - an elderly Modiin priest - together with his five sons, as well as by other traditionalists, known at the time as "Chasidim" (although unrelated to those of today, and actually they were the forerunners of later Pharisees). The battle-cry was the famous "whoever is for the Lord, follow me" [see "Maccabee" in our "Good To Know In Hebrew" section]. Upon Matityahu's death, leadership passed to his son Yehuda [Judah]. This guerilla war took two years to get to the point of liberating Jerusalem and the Temple (which had been intentionally defiled by the Greeks). Its rededication occurred on the 25th of Kislev- thus the starting date of today's Chanukah. But it would take another two years of fighting for Yehuda to gain what he considered a more satisfactory measure of local autonomy for Judea, and another twenty years for the family line to expel the Greek-Syrians more completely.

  • The celebration of eight days grew out of a combination of Temple rededication and victory remembrance, together with a delayed celebration of Sukkot (or a "second" Sukkot). Back in those times, Sukkot was very Temple-centered and a national holiday of more major importance in the Jewish calendar [see our Sukkot packet]. While Josephus does mention the alternative name "Festival of Lights", or חג האורים / chag ha-urim, no oil miracle is recounted by him. Nor is it found in the First and Second Books of Maccabees . It does turn up later in the Gemara.

To shine a light on…

Nowadays we have returned to perhaps some wider balance of themes – the national/ethnic identity features of the holiday, pursuance and protection of freedom, the many messages symbolized by lighting the chanukiah - which itself is kind of a home version of the menorah that stood in the Temple.

Our Temple of today might be thought of as having become more portable and spiritually internalized while we carry out the mitzvah of nightly candle-lighting. It serves as an important reminder and rededication of ourselves. It also, as instructed by the rabbis of old, must shine outwards for all outside our home to see. To illuminate, if you like, that which otherwise could and should not hide in darkness, and that which should not be forgotten or given up on...

We at Learn Hebrew Pod wish you a most joyful, fulfilling, fun and delicious
Chanuka sameach / Happy Chanukah!
happy chanukah

*As for Chanukah customs and more, just continue on to our next section - "Worthwhile Information and Tidbits" :).