What Is The History Of Hanukkah?

Learn about the history of hanukkah by reading this article.

CHanukkah is celebrated every year by Jewish people around the world. It is observed starting on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar and lasts eight days and nights. It is a festive holiday to commemorate miraculous events that happened many centuries ago. The dreidel is one of the symbols most associated with Hanukkah, but there is more to the holiday then spinning the dreidel and collecting gelt (chocolate coins.)

The story of CHanukkah began a long time ago in 165 BCE in the land of Judea, (note that Jews use BCE, before the common era, and CE, common era, instead of BC and AD.) At this time, a Syrian King named Antiochus ruled the land. The king had ordered the Jewish people to reject their beliefs and rituals and to worship the Greek Gods. There were some Jews who did as they were told out of fear of the Greek Soldiers, but most were angry and decided to fight back.

The fighting began in a village close to Jerusalem. Soldiers gathered the Jewish villagers and told them to bow to a Greek idol and eat the meat of a pig, both which are forbidden under Jewish law. The Greeks asked a Jewish High Priest named Mattathias to participate. He refused but another villager came forward and offered to take his place. Outraged at this defiance, Mattathias took his sword and killed this man and the Greek soldier. The villagers, including Mattathias' five sons, attacked and killed the rest of the Greeks who had assembled them. After this event, Mattathias and his family went into hiding in the nearby mountains. They were followed by many other Jews who also wanted to fight the Greeks.

A year after this initial rebellion, Mattathias died, leaving his son Judah Maccabee in charge of the Jewish army. After three years of fighting with fewer men and weapons, the Jews were successful in defeating the Greek soldiers. Judah and his men went to the Holy Temple to clean and fix any damage. Many of their precious items were missing or destroyed. They cleaned and repaired what they could of the Temple and when they went to relight the Menorah they discovered enough oil for only one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days, giving them enough time to obtain more oil to keep the menorah lit continuously. Today Jews light the menorah for eight days, remembering these early triumphs.

The Menorah is central in the Hanukkah celebration. On the first night, one light is lit and with each successive night, another candle is added until all eight lights are lit. Candles are placed in the menorah from right to left but lit left to right. The Shamash or "servant" candle is the highest candle and it is lit first and used to light the other candles. Blessings are recited before the candles are lit and it is important that the light of the menorah not be blown out.

The shapes and styles of Menorahs have changed to reflect different times but the meaning and symbolism remains the same. Today, children participate in the lighting of the Menorah and enjoy the lighting as much as their parents.

The dreidel has long been associated with Hanukkah and children. The story behind the dreidel, however, is one of safety. In times when Jews were forbidden to meet and practice their religious beliefs, men would keep a dreidel and gelt handy while gathering to study the Torah. When soldiers would approach, they would pull out the dreidel and pretend to be playing a game. Many times, the dreidel would save their lives and beliefs.

The dreidel is a four sided top with Hebrew letters inscribed on each side. In America, the letters stand for "A Great Miracle Happened There." In Israel, the letters mean "A Great Miracle Happened Here." Each player is given the same amount of gelt or candy to begin and each puts a specific amount in the kitty. With each spin, the dreidel tells the player what to do with the winnings in the kitty: no win/ no lose, take all, take half or put one in.

Today the dreidel is still popular among children and adults. It has become a joyous symbol of the holiday and one that has remained constant throughout the years.

Certain foods are also associated specifically with Hanukkah. Latkes, made from cheese, vegetables, fruits or potatoes are popular and tasty. Sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts without the holes, are a special treat. Dropped in hot oil without being shaped, they cool randomly and in interesting formations.

Hanukkah is a celebration of joy for the Jews that has endured centuries of strife and conflict. It is a time to remember the past and look into the future. Though every holiday has symbols and objects associated with it, the meaning of the holidays goes deeper than a game, a food or a symbol. When a Jew discovers that true meaning, the holiday becomes more significant and important. The dreidel will break, the latkes and sufganiyot will be eaten and the candles will melt, but the true meaning of CHanukkah will dwell forever in the hearts of Jews everywhere.

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