Story of Chanukah

Story of Chanukah

By Mel Goldberg


Chanukah is the Jewish eight-day, wintertime “festival of freedom,” celebrated with the nightly lighting of a nine-branched menorah, special prayers, and fried foods. The Hebrew word Chanukah means dedication, and is thus named because it celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple. The Hebrew word is actually pronounced with a guttural, ch sound, cha-nu-kah.



More than 2,000 years ago the land of Israel was part of the Syrian-Greek Empire, dominated by Syrian rulers of the Seleucid dynasty. Antiochus III, the King of Syria who reigned from 222-186 B.C.E., gave the Jews under his rule some freedom. But when Antiochus died, his son Seleucus IV promoted Hellenistic idol-worship in an attempt to unite the people under his rule.

But Yochanan, the High Priest of the Jews, resisted and saw the danger to Judaism by the influence of the Hellenists who accepted idol-worship and the Syrian way of life. Yochanan opposed the Jewish Hellenists who favored the ideal of outward beauty in contrast to Judaism which emphasized truth and moral purity, as commanded by the Torah.

When Antiochus IV ascended to the throne, he suppressed all the Jewish rituals. When Yochanan protested, he was assassinated.

Antiochus IV enacted a series of harsh decrees against the Jews. Jewish worship was forbidden; the scrolls of the law (Torah) were confiscated and burned. Sabbath rest, circumcision, and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death.

Antiochus’s men went from town to town and from village to village to force all inhabitants to worship pagan gods.

A Jewish priest named Mattityahu lived in the remote village of Modiin. When Antiochus’s men arrived in the village, they built an altar in the marketplace and demanded that Mattityahu offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. He refused. When a Jewish Hellenist offered to make a sacrifice at the altar, Mattityahu killed him. Then he and his sons and friends destroyed the altar, killed some of Antiochus’s men, and routed the rest.

Knowing that Antiochus would be enraged, Mattityahu left Modiin and fled, together with his sons and friends, to the hills of Judea where they formed an army determined to destroy pagan altars.

Before his death, Mattityahu called his sons together and urged them to continue and to follow a leader who was called The Maccabee, a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Adonai, (who is like God).

Antiochus sent an army to destroy the Maccabees. The army was defeated by the Maccabees, who used guerrilla tactics and swore they would fight to death in defense of their souls and the temple!

When the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem, they entered the temple and cleared it of the idols. They built a new altar, which they dedicated on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev, in the year 139 B.C.E. Kislev often occurs in December. This year the twenty-fifth of Kislev falls on December 23.

Because the Syrians had taken the original gold menorah when the temple was destroyed, the Maccabees made a new menorah with nine branches. When they went to light it, they found only a small cruse of pure olive oil bearing the official seal of the High Priest Yochanan. The oil was sufficient to burn only for one day and it took eight days to consecrate olive oil for religious purposes. But the menorah continued to burn for eight days until new oil was consecrated. They took that as a miracle that God still had the people under His protection. In memory of this, the ancient sages appointed these eight days for annual thanksgiving and for lighting candles.

Today, one of the traditions of Chanukah is to give gelt (money) which are usually chocolate coins wrapped in gold-colored foil. One explanation is that the root of the word Chanukah can be connected to the Hebrew word for education, chinuch. Thus, the history behind Chanukah customs is educational. When we give children Chanukah gelt, we are teaching them the history and the importance of freedom.

And the Maccabiah Games, named in honor of the Maccabees, often called the Jewish Olympics, are held in Israel the year following the Olympic Games, and the best Jewish athletes from throughout the world compete.


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