Considered a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish year, Hanukkah’s most important ritual activity involves lights. A special menorah — the hanukkiya — is prominently displayed for the occasion. The celebration began Tuesday, Dec. 12, and will end Wednesday, Dec. 20.
The hanukkiya has branches for eight candles, plus a ninth, in the middle, called the shammash. At sunset on every night of Hanukkah, candles are placed in the hanukkiya from right to left, and then lit from left to right, one for each day so that the lights grow with the holiday. The shammash is used to light the other candles.
This Festival of Lights celebrates and commemorates an event in Jewish history nearly 2,200 years ago — the resistance mounted by the Maccabees against the Syrian king, Antiochus IV.
According to the book “All About Hanukkah,” by Judyth Groner, Madeline Wikler and Kinny Kreiswirth, Antiochus was descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and he promoted Greek culture in all the territories he ruled. He decreed that Jews could no longer practice the most distinctive aspects of their culture.
Jews were no longer allowed to worship or study their sacred texts, and an altar to Zeus was set up in the Temple of Jerusalem. A revolt against Antiochus was mounted, led by a priest named Mattathias and his five sons. They took to the hills near Jerusalem and embarked on a three-year guerrilla war against the ruling Syrian-Greeks.
Mattathias’ son, Judas Maccabeus, took command of the Jewish revolt and eventually ran the Syrians out of Jerusalem. He immediately set about purifying the Temple. Judas dedicated a new altar and instituted a new holiday — Hanukkah, which, in Hebrew, means “dedications.” It was originally celebrated to commemorate the victory of the Syrian-Greek rule.
Hanukkah became the Festival of Lights because when Judas entered the Temple, he found only enough ritually pure oil to burn for one day, but miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, until more purified oil could be found.
Now, Hanukkah is mainly a celebration of God’s miracle and not the Maccabees’ victory. A Hanukkah prayer thanks God for delivering “the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure and the wicked into the hands of the righteous.”