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What Is Chanukkah?

In the Jewish calendar, Chanukkah’s eight-day celebration begins the evening of the 25th of Kislev (which falls sometime during December). The months of the Jewish calendar are based on the cycles of the moon, so the 25th is always four days before the new moon, the darkest night of the month.

More importantly, because Kislev is always close to the winter solstice, Chanukkah takes you into, through, and out of the darkest night of the year. (The solstice is technically the longest night of the year, but it may fall on the full moon, which would make it far from dark.) On the darkest night of the year, wouldn’t you want to light a few candles?

Chanukkah celebrates two things: a miracle in which one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days, and the victory of the Jewish freedom fighters over the Syrian-Greek forces that tried to wipe out Judaism in the second century B.C.E. Chanukkah marks the very first battle fought neither for territory, nor for conquest of another people, but in order to achieve religious freedom. In a larger sense, then, Chanukkah celebrates a reaffirmation of freedom and a recommitment to the spiritual quest.

The story of Chanukkah is told in the two books of the Maccabees, written sometime in the first century B.C.E., about a hundred years after the whole drama happened. By 325 B.C.E., Alexander the Great’s Greek empire extended all the way to the current-day Middle East. After he died, the empire split into smaller pieces ruled by a succession of smaller men.

Antiochus was such a ruler. After giving himself the surname Epiphanes (“god manifest”), he decided to forcibly rid his empire of local religions, including Judaism. He outlawed — upon penalty of death — kosher food, circumcision, and Shabbat services. Some Jews were less happy with the arrangement. One objector, Mattathias, killed a Jew who tried to follow the king’s commandment by making a sacrifice to the Greek gods.

Fleeing to the mountains with his five sons, Mattathias gathered an army of other pious believers and began a bloody revolution that lasted three years (from 169 to 166 B.C.E.). After Mattathias’s death, his son Judah led the guerrilla warfare against Antiochus’s forces and the assimilated Jews, who became known as the Maccabees. After a series of clashes, the Maccabees retook Jerusalem, drove out the Syrian-Greek army, and began work repairing the desecrated grounds of the Second Temple.

By the time the later sections of the Talmud were being written (around 500 C.E.), the political situation had changed, and the rabbis were less enamored of the Maccabees. First of all, as is so often the case with armed revolutions, the victorious Maccabean families set themselves up as kings over the land and became as oppressive as the previous regime and allied themselves with the Roman Empire, leading to the eventual Roman conquest.

While these rabbis wouldn’t simply reject the Chanukkah celebration, they decided instead to emphasize a different aspect of the holiday in their commentary. Legend had it that when the Temple was rededicated, the Maccabees could only find a single cruse of pure oil, enough to burn the Eternal Flame for one day. Unfortunately, it would take eight days to get more oil. God, the Talmud says, performed a miracle and made the oil last for eight days.

The Talmud’s subtle message: It is the miracle of the oil that people should celebrate more than the military victory. Tradition therefore includes these words from the Prophet Zachariah as part of the synagogue readings on Chanukkah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Eternal One. . . .”

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