Holiday Almanac: Hanukkah, Jewish festival of freedom
Tonight starts Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah, whose name is Hebrew for “Dedication,” recalls the Jews’ recapture of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from a pagan tyrant.
Hanukkah is sometimes called the Jewish Christmas, and the first night falls on Christmas Eve this year. But the two holidays have overlapped only eight times since 1900, according to Vox. And the founding events of Hanukkah are not related to Christmas; they took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.
At the time, Israel was ruled by a Greco-Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes. The king banned Judaism and had a pig — a ritually unclean animal — sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple.
The Israelites finally revolted for freedom of religion, led by the five Maccabee brothers. They miraculously defeated the Greek army and set out to rededicate the Temple, but found only one day’s supply of oil for the Great Menorah or candelabrum. In the story’s second miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify a new supply.
Jewish families commemorate the victory by lighting a small, eight-branched menorah at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages.” One more candle is lighted each night, until by the last night, the whole candelabrum is ablaze.
Hanukkah also features festive foods: latkes, or potato pancakes for East European Jews; sufganiot, or doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate, for Mideastern Jews. Both are deep-fried in oil, recalling the miracle of the Temple lamp.
A more subtle holiday custom is the dreidel, a four-sided top that children play with. The sides of the dreidel have Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin . The letters form an acrostic for a sentence: Nes gadol hayah sham, or “A great miracle happened there.”
— James D. Davis