Shining A Light On Hannukah
Hanukkah, or the Jewish festival of light, is a more than two thousand year old celebration of Jewish tenacity and triumph over adversity. In the 20th century, a century more significant than perhaps any other for the Jewish people since their infamous expulsion from Judea by the Romans, it took on a special cultural importance. The story of what used to be a relatively minor celebration begins in the year 168 BCE. Since Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire had liberated the Jews in the 5th century BCE, they had experienced a reasonable degree of freedom, particularly cultural and religious freedom at the hands of the various powers that nominally exercised control over Judea, at first the Achaemenids, and later Ptolemaic Egypt after the conquests of Alexander. As conflict between the Ptolemies and their hellenistic rivals the Seleucids intensified, Judea frequently changed hands between the two, and remained largely unaffected. This, however, changed with the rise of Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
Whereas his predecessors had been largely tolerant, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was anything but. He effected a dramatic reversal in policy and began religiously persecuting the Jews, leading to the eventual Maccabean revolt that ousted the Seleucids. Or at least, that is the traditionalist version of events. Modern scholarship has suggested that events in Judea were more complicated. The hellenization of West Asia had not spared Judea, and many Jews had begun to adopt hellenistic practices, many of which included the worship of Greek Gods to the horror of their more conservative counterparts. The final nail in the coffin, however, was likely the dedication of the Jewish Second Temple to Zeus, prompting what was likely a civil war in which the conservative faction emerged victorious, protecting Jewish civilization from further hellenization and likely setting the stage for the cultural conflicts with the Roman Empire that were to follow. At any rate, it was the events of this fateful revolt that form the backdrop of Hanukkah.
In strictly religious terms, though, Hanukkah does not share the significance of Passover or Yom Kippur. How is it then, that it has become perhaps the most culturally visible celebration of Judaism in the 21st century? The answer is most probably two-pronged. The first has to do with its secular origins and nature, grounded as it is in undeniably historical events that would undoubtedly resonate with events of the 20th century, which saw horrific oppression of the Jews, and their ultimate perseverance and success. The second, of course, is Christmas.
You see, the eight days of Hanukkah begin on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, which roughly corresponds to the period from late November through December in the Gregorian calendar, frequently coinciding with Christmas, a time that is ripe for celebration anyway. In fact, in the last two centuries, particularly in the United States, Hanukkah celebrations have frequently been inspired by the celebration of Christmas in popular christmas, with the result that it now has its own public celebrations across the world, seen in the lighting of public Menorahs and street carnivals. The game of dreidel and consumption of oil-based foods such as latkes and sufganiyot are known to and sometimes even participated in, by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Hanukkah gets its eight days of celebration from a miracle in the aftermath of the successful Maccabean revolt. As the Talmud tells the story, the fighting ended on the 25th of Kislev, and the Temple was dedicated once more to the Jewish God. Unfortunately, a mere day’s worth of ritual oil was found in a usable condition in the temple. Since the menorah had to be kept permanently lit, this presented a major problem, since the Jews were faced with the dire situation of the candle going out. Miraculously, however, the candle continued to burn for the eight days that were required to prepare fresh oil, giving rise to the eight days of celebration that constitute the festival.
Perhaps that is a third reason for the popularity of the festival. Whether seen as a festival to commemorate the glory of God and faith in Him, as represented by the miracle of the menorah, or seen as a secular celebration of perseverance and the right to self-determination, or simply as a cultural marker and an occasion to immerse oneself in one’s community, Hanukkah offers a little bit of everything.