Chanukah is a fascinating festival, particularly for children. How fortunate they are to play “spin the top”, happy to receive small coins and munch on delicious jelly donuts. Well, at least this is our Israeli custom.
In the diaspora, dreidel spinning is a simple game. The most important of the four letters is “Nun” for it refers to the “nes”, the miracle of Chanukah. And as for jelly donuts which surpass those of Dunkin’ Donuts, they opt for fried potato pancakes with apple sauce or sour cream, depending upon a dairy or a meat meal.
But for Jews, Chanukah is a special opportunity to recall the dedication of the polluted Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the year 166 BCE.
Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror of most of the world, had died and his empire was divided between two of his faithful generals, Ptolemy and Seleucus.
Ptolemy ruled the land of Egypt and its surroundings while Seleucus ruled Syria and the lands adjacent to it.
From 169 BCE to 166 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes (the great), whom the Jews called Epimanes (the madman) sat on the Syrian throne.
It was his sole desire to Hellenize the lands over which he ruled, bringing Greek culture and customs in an effort to unify his empire. If all peoples could speak Greek, dress like the Greeks, eat like the Greeks, there would be a total unity of the various nations which he ruled.
The Jews of Judea, at least a majority of them, did not object to speaking Greek, dressing like Greeks and following Greek customs. No more so, for example, than American Jews who speak English as do the Gentiles, dress in modern garb as do the Gentiles, and celebrate American secular holidays like Thanksgiving as the Gentiles do.
Rebellion began only when Antiochus compelled the Jews to worship the Greek god Zeus and to offer pagan sacrifices to the gods. He outlawed circumcision, kosher food, and observance of Saturday as Shabbat and study of Torah upon pain of death.
It was this forced desecration of Jewish religious life that gave rise to the war against Hellenism, led by the priest Matityahu of Modin and his sons.
Upon his death he was succeeded by his son Judah the Hasmonean who, after a long battle, routed the Greeks out of Judea, cleansed the destroyed tabernacle and altars of the holy temple, and declared an eight day festival of re-dedication (Chanukah).
The eight day festival was not attributed to a legend of a miraculous cruse of pure oil, sufficient to last one day but lasted for eight days. It was chosen because during the previous eight day festival of Sukkot the Jews had been unable to worship in the temple. Chanukah therefore became Sukkot for eight days in 165 BCE.
It is interesting to note that of the 24 books in our Jewish Bible, there is absolutely no mention of Chanukah. The early rabbis objected to the Maccabean rule. Chanukah is the only holiday never mentioned in Jewish religious literature.
The Talmud speaks of it in two words “Ma Chanukah?” What is Chanukah.
Had it not been for the Maccabean victory over Antiochus and Hellenism, we Jews today might be Greek speakers rather than speakers of Hebrew.
Chanukah, however, is described in lengthy detail in the two volumes of the Book of Maccabees found in the 14 books of the Apocrypha, the books which the rabbis who edited the Bible in Yavneh (Jamnia) in 70 CE chose to exclude from the Hebrew bible (Tanach). It is written in Greek and was favored by the Hellenistic Greek speaking Jewish community of Alexandria.
Chanukah was the first battle ever fought anywhere in the world only for the purpose of religious freedom. Before and after, wars had been fought for power, for land, for wealth and for empire-building.
Not so Chanukah. The Jews were comfortable speakng and dressing like Greeks. It was only when the Jewish religion was in danger of being eliminated did the Jews rise up to defend our holy Torah and its laws.
Dreidels, gelt and latkes put a happy memorial to a great historic event. Candles glow in the menorahs (chanukiot) for each of the eight nights. We place them in the window to proclaim our victory to all the world. By doing so we are fulfilling the real meaning of Chanukah. It is a re-dedication of our lives to the sacred truths of our ancient yet modern faith in One God.
This year, unhappily, there will be one candle missing from our chanukiah . The light, brightness, hope and inspiration which it gave us, is no more. The light has faded and flickered out forever. We bless the memories. And we weep.