Hanukkah’s Ancient History and Modern Tradition
A dreidel is featured in this year’s Hanukkah stamp.
By Alex Padalka
The word Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew, and is one of the youngest Jewish holidays. Hanukkah celebrates religious dedication and the strong Jewish spirit, and has a story of victory behind it.
In the second century, Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to force his own Greek religion on the people of Judea. To their outrage, Antiochus erected an altar of Zeus in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and sacrificed a pig on it. The Jewish people did not stand this insult and staged a successful rebellion led by Judah Maccabee. After the war was over, the Maccabees cleansed the Temple and held a service of dedication, marking the first Hanukkah.
During the restoration, a miracle happened, according to the Talmud. There was only enough oil found to last for one day, yet somehow the temple Menorah stayed lit for eight.
To commemorate the miracle, Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, and gets its second name, the Festival of Lights, from the practice of lighting the special Hanukkah Menorah, also called a Chanukkiah. As opposed to the seven candles of the Temple Menorah, it has nine candles or oil lamps, one of which stands out from the others, called the Shamash. The Shamash is lit first and used to light the rest of the candles, one for each day of the miracle. The menorah is displayed prominently in a window or on a stoop, to remind passersby of the miracle.
The tradition of the menorah is rooted in Jewish History.
Another symbol of Hanukkah is the drediel, the four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. The letters stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – “A great miracle happened there,” but they also stand for instructions to a game. It is said that the drediel was used as a “teaching tool in disguise” when the Jewish people were forbidden to teach their religion.
Hanukkah is best known among American non-Jews because it often coincides with the Christmas season (this year, Chanukah begins on the evening of Dec. 15), but it is actually a relatively minor holiday. Unlike Passover and Yom Kippur, which were Biblical holidays, which God gave to Moses at Sinai, Chanukah is not even mentioned in the Jewish Bible.
It does appear in the New Testament (John 10:22), however, by which time it became a regular holiday: “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.”