Hanukkah Origins: ‘Miracle of Oil’ Exalted a Religious Freedom Victory in Ancient Jewish Temple
Known also as the Festival of Dedication, as well as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is a major Jewish holiday commemorating the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees. Hanukkah (also Romanized as Chanukah) is celebrated annually for 8 days and nights, usually between late November and late December. Traditionally, the lighting of a special menorah, the eating of fried foods, and playing a symbolic game take place during Hanukkah to celebrate the curious ’Miracle of Oil’.
Traditional Hanukkah dish latkes (happy_lark / Fotolia)
Hanukkah Story Begins with Persecution under the Seleucids
The story of Hanukkah begins in the 2 nd century BC, after the Torah was written. During this time, the land of Judaea was under the rule of the Seleucid Empire. One of Alexander the Great’s generals during the late 4 th century BC, Seleucus I Nicator founded the empire. Although the Seleucids first respected Jewish culture, a complete reverse occurred under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ruled from 175 to 164 BC. Antiochus, hoping to Hellenize the various peoples of the empire, outlawed the Jewish religion and made its practice punishable by death. Additionally, Antiochus forced the Jews to worship the Greek gods, and desecrated the Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus, and offering sacrifices of pigs on it.
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Mattathias Appeals to the Jewish Refugees. (I Maccabees 2:42-70) (Public Domain)
Maccabean Revolt Reclaims Jewish Religious Freedom
Antiochus’ actions angered the Jews, who eventually revolted against Seleucid rule. This revolt began in Modiin, a village not far from Jerusalem. Here, Antiochus’ soldiers forced the villagers to bow down to an idol, and then had them eat pork, two practices that are prohibited in Judaism. Mattathias, a priest, refused to obey. When another villager offered to cooperate on his behalf, Mattathias became enraged and killed him. He then killed the Greek officer, and the remaining soldiers were killed by the villagers.
Mattathias and his five sons fled to the mountains, where they were joined by other Jews who wanted to fight against the Seleucids. At the beginning of the revolt, the rebels were aware that it would be suicide to engage the Seleucids in open battle. They resorted to guerrilla tactics. Upon Mattathias’ death in 166 BC, his son Judas Maccabeus (nicknamed ‘the Hammer’), became the guerrillas’ new leader, and hence the revolt came to be known as the Maccabean revolt. The rebel force succeeded in defeating the Seleucids, and recaptured Jerusalem.
The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus, by Rubens. (Public Domain)
How does the Miracle of Oil tradition exalt the Temple Re-dedication?
The victorious Jews proceeded to cleanse the defiled Temple, re-erected the altar, and re-dedicated the Temple to God. The celebration of Hanukkah is based on a miracle that is believed to have occurred during the Temple’s re-dedication. According to a legend, when Judas and his supporters entered the Temple, they found that there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah burning for a day. To their surprise, however, the menorah kept burning for a total of eight days. According to another legend, eight iron spears were found by Judas, and Hanukkah candles were stuck on them for lighting the Temple. The Hebrew word ‘Hanukkah’ is said to mean ‘dedication’, and refers to the re-dedication of the Second Temple by the Maccabees.
Hannukah ‘miracle of oil’ symbolized by the Menorah.
The number ‘8’ plays a significant role in both stories, and provides an explanation for the celebration of Hanukkah over a period of eight days. The ‘miracle of oil’ also forms the basis for the consumption of fried foods during this festival. Two of the traditional foods eaten during Hanukkah are the sufganiyah, a deep-fried jelly-filled doughnut, and the latke, which are fried potato pancakes. Another Hanukkah tradition is the spinning of the dreidel. This is a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side: Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Shin, which is an acronym for ‘Nes Gadol Haya Sham’, meaning ‘A great miracle happened there’. The acronym signifies the ‘miracle of oil’.
Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday not mentioned in the Torah, as the events occurred after it was written. Finally, it may be said that due to the influence of Christmas, gift-giving has also become a practice of Hanukkah.
Top image: Hanukkah menorah with wailing wall in the background. Source: (yokypics / Fotolia)
By Wu Mingren
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