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What is Hanukkah?
In the fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great with his Greek armies conquered the Near East including Israel. After his death, his empire split apart. The land of Israel, after a period of struggle, came under the control of the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled the region of Syria. In the year 167 BCE, the king Antiochus Epiphanes decided to force all the peoples under his rule to hellenize. The practice of Jewish rituals such as the Sabbath and circumcision was outlawed. The worship of Greek gods and the sacrifice of pigs replaced the traditional worship in the temple. Some Jews eagerly flocked to the gymnasium, symbolic of the Greek emphasis on the beauty and strength of the body. Others resisted Hellenism and died as martyrs.
One day the Greeks came to the village of Modi‘in and set up an altar. They commanded the Jews to bring a pig as a sacrifice to show obedience to Antiochus’s decree. Mattathias, an old priest, was so enraged when he saw a Jew about to do so that he killed him. He and his five sons then fought the Greek detachment, retreated to the mountains, and began a guerrilla war against the Greeks and their Jewish allies. Before he died of old age, Mattathias passed on the leadership to his son Judah the Maccabee (Maccabee means “hammer”). Judah led his forces against a series of armies sent by Antiochus, and through superior strategy and bravery he defeated them all. Finally, he and his followers liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the temple after it was defiled by the Greeks. Legend has it that they could find only one small cruse of oil, enough to last one day, but when they lit the Temple menorah with it, a miracle occurred and the menorah burned for eight days. Since then we celebrate Hanukkah to remember the Maccabees and their successful fight for independence against the Greeks, a miracle which God performed by giving the victory over the many to the few. The miracle of the oil was given, not as a miracle in and of itself, but as a testimony to remember the miracle that God accomplished as He gave the few Jewish fighters the victory over the massive armies of Antiochus.
The Books of First and Second Maccabees recount this story in detail, but without the miracle of the oil. For this reason, some feel that part of the story was added later. The Maccabean recounting, along with that of Josephus, however, do mention the lighting of the menorah and the purging of the Temple. In contrast, the Talmud emphasizes the miracle of the oil, almost to the exclusion of mentioning the military victory! The discrepancy is explained this way by the Rabbis: the real miracle was the victory which God gave to the Jewish people who were greatly outnumbered by their enemies. But in order to emphasize beyond any doubt that the victory was a miracle, God gave the sign of the oil. The latter miracle was given to validate the former one, which might have been missed by later generations.
Traditional foods for Hanukkah are suphganiot, light donuts; latkes, potato cakes (some use sweat potatoes or even zuccini) and generally any foods cooked in oil (since the story of the sacred oil lasting a full eight days has become a dominant theme).
Dreidals (four-sided tops) are used for playing the dreidal game at Hanukkah as well. Each of the four sides of the dreidal are inscribed with the beginning letter of each of the four words making up the sentence “a great miracle happened there” (Nes gadol hayah sham). The letters are nun, gimmel, hey, and shin. In Israel the phrase is “a great miracle happened here” (Nes gadol hayah poh). Using chocolate coins (“gelt”) as play markers (each person should have the same number of candy coins to begin with), the participants spin the dreidal. If it lands with the ‘shin’ up, the player puts two candies into the “pot.” If the ‘nun’ lands up, the player does nothing. If the ‘gimmel’ lands up, the player takes the whole “pot,” while spinning a ‘hey’ gives the player half of the “pot.” When the pot gets down to only two pieces of candy, everyone puts one in, just as they did when the game began. When a player no longer has any candy pieces, he leaves the game. The game ends when one player has captured all the candy.