Celebrating a Holiday of Light

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

After Alexander the Great conquered Syria, Egypt and Judea, he allowed those countries the freedom to observe their own religious traditions. During the time of his benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated ideas and cultural traditions from the dominant Hellenistic culture. The Jews adopted the Greek language, dress, and customs — much as Jews have done living in Western countries and in the United States. But they still remained loyal to their ancestral faith.

However, the social climate changed after Alexander died; his empire had divided into several sections, each one led by a different leader — the Greek Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. After successfully invading the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, Antiochus IV captures Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple by setting up an idol in honor of Zeus; moreover, he insisted that the Jews worship and show fealty to these deities; the ritual of circumcision or possession of sacred Jewish books became forbidden.  He then imposes a tax and establishes a fortress in Jerusalem.

The Hasmonean family of priests objected to the changes introduced by the Seleucid rulers and his Jewish Hellenistic supporters. They amassed an army and fought with the Syrian Greeks until they won their revolution. The Book of Maccabees, was written by a Jewish writer sometime in the 2nd century B.C.E., and he spoke about the Hasmonean family’s heroism that led to a new restoration and rededication of their Temple and homeland.

Chanukah celebrates the holiday that began as the first war in human history for religious freedom.

People wonder: Did the Book of Maccabees mention the miraculous menorah lighting that lasted eight nights? Although this miracle is narrated in the Talmudic version of the story, the Book of Maccabees relates there was no longer a menorah; the Greeks had cut it up and sold it for its gold.

As for the menorah, the victorious Jewish soldiers took the spears of their fallen enemies and made it into a makeshift menorah. But why did the Talmud tell us a different story that there was only enough oil to burn for one day, but miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah?

By the time the Pharisees retold the story, they had developed a strong distaste for celebrating Chanukah as a war story. Since the failed attempts to fight a war of independence against Rome ended in disaster, the rabbis developed a new approach.

The ancient prophet Zechariah expressed a radical idea the early rabbis reintegrated into the Chanukah story, “Not by might, and not by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of host” (Zech. 4:6). If we want to change the world, it must be through the power of light and enlightenment.

The increase of the lights lit on Chanukah suggests an interesting connection with the Zoroastrian fire festival of Sadeh, which was celebrated with grandeur and magnificence in ancient Persia. The lighting of fire represented the defeat of the forces of darkness, frost, and cold. The time of this event, occurs shortly after the time of the winter solstice, when the days start to become longer with each passing week. The holiday of Christmas occurs four days after the winter solstice, and as a holiday, Christians believe their savior brought light to the world.  It is ironic that each of these festivals celebrated at the winter solstice celebrate the return of light in our world, howbeit differently.

May you all be blessed with a wonderful and meaningful Chanukah!

And now you know the rest of the story.

 

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