HISTORY OF HANUKKAH: The Festival of Lights

Friday, December 30, 2005 | 
Hanukkah, known as the Festival of Lights, means “Dedication,” and celebrates the historic victory of the Maccabees and their rededication of the Second Temple in the year 165 BC.

It was under the Greek Empire and the Syrian occupying forces of Antiochus Epiphanes that the Temple was desecrated. Foreign rulers placed idols and sacrificed pigs in the Holy of Holies. Antiochus imposed the death sentence for circumcision and Sabbath observance. Yet a priestly family called the Hasmoneans headed by Matthias refused to carry out his orders and led a three-year rebellion.

After defeating the Syrian Army, the Jews sought to cleanse and purify the Temple. But when they went to light the sacred seven-branch menorah, they found that there was only small jar of oil for one day. It would take another eight days for this holy oil to light the menorah.

And yet a great miracle happened—the oil lasted eight days!

In remembrance of the miracle, Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah by lighting a hanukkiah, a candelabrum resembling a menorah, but with eight branches. One of the candles, called the shammas (the “servant” candle), lights the others. The Messiah is compared to the Hanukkiah—the servant candle who is the “light of the world.”

In keeping with tradition, Jews sing the Hanukkah song Maoz Tzur Yeshuati—“Rock of my Salvation.” The tradition also includes indulging in oily foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (jelly donuts). The traditional scripture readings are Numbers 7:1-8:4; Zechariah 2:14-4:7; and 1 Kings 7:40-50.

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