For Jews around the world, Hanukkah begins at sundown Sunday. This holiday commemorates the re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE.
At that time, the Seleuicid Greeks controlled Jerusalem and surrounding areas. Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-164 BCE) was an infamous anti-Semite. He ordered the Jews to worship Jupiter and other Greek gods and declared practice of Jewish rituals illegal.
He ordered that the temple in Jerusalem become a shrine to Jupiter, with sacrifices of swine to honor Greek gods. Jews had to eat the sacrifices, forbidden in the Torah, on penalty of death for refusal.
This happened once when a woman named Hannah was at the temple with her seven sons. She had to witness each one refuse to eat the sacrifice. One by one, they were tortured and killed before her eyes. As the spectacle ended, she died of grief.
Mattathias, a priest from the Hasmonean family, refused to obey the Greek law and began a revolt against Antiochus in 167 BCE.
Two years later, his son Judah wrested control of the temple from the Greeks and set about purifying it for re-dedication as the Jewish temple.
Judah and his brothers are known as the "Maccabees," after the Aramaic word for "hammer," because of their ability to strike and defeat the Greeks with sure blows.
The re-dedication of the temple required ceremonial oil to relight the lamps that always illuminated the sanctuary. There was only enough oil for one day, and it would take a week to get more. Miraculously, that oil kept the sanctuary illuminated for eight days.
Ever since, Hanukkah has been celebrated for eight days. These events are recounted in Books I and II Maccabbees and the works of Josephus in the 1st century CE.
Why Hanukkah is in December
The re-dedication of the temple occurred on the 25th day of Kislev, the Jewish month that roughly coincides with December. It was on that day three years earlier that Antiochus had dedicated the temple to Jupiter and proclaimed a ban on Jewish worship. He may have chosen this date as it coincided with pagan winter solstice ceremonies of Saturnalia.
Later, Christians celebrated the 25th day of December as the birth of Jesus, perhaps to diminish the attractions of Saturnalia.
For Christians, the child celebrated is Jesus and the gifts are from the magi. For Jews, all children are the focus, and the gifts are from parents and friends who view them with love and as their link to the future.
The meaning of the candles
Although there are special prayers for Hanukkah in community services, this is a holiday that is centered in Jewish homes. The nine-branched menorah, or candelabra, is the centerpiece, much like the Christmas tree in Christian homes.
One candle is called the "shammas," and it serves to light the other eight to commemorate the miraculous ability of the oil that should have lasted only one day to suffice for eight.
The first night, the shammas is used to light one candle, then another candle is added each night until all eight are lit. For children, the candle-lighting ceremony is the prelude for nightly gifts.
What’s the wooden top that children spin?
Hanukkah "gelt," or money, is also a traditional gift for children. They use these pennies and nickels (in my time, maybe a bit more in 2015) to play with each other around the dreidel, a spinning top with four sides.
Each side contains a Hebrew letter, taken from the first letters in the phrase "nas gadol hayah sham," which means, "A great miracle happened there."
The miracle was the oil lasting for eight days rather than just one. The game starts with each player putting in a piece of gelt. The players take turns spinning the dreidel. If the "nun" turns up, that player gets nothing. The "gimel" takes all; the "hay" takes half; the "shin" has to add a piece to the pot.
In Israel, where the miracle actually happened, the Hebrew phrase is "nas gadol hayah po," or "A great miracle happened here," and one of the letters on the dreidel is different.
What to eat for Hanukkah
The common Hanukkah dish is latkes. These are deep-fried pancakes made from shredded potatoes and onions. Very tasty, addictive and fattening, but, after all, this is a holiday!
Latkes have no biblical or even ancient origin, but come from the Eastern European origin of many American Jews. There is not even an Old World origin to latkes, as potatoes were not known there until after the discovery of the New World. Modern Hanukkah, however, would not be the same without latkes at least one day of the eight.
For the next few days, Jews will be lighting candles in their homes and places of worship. They will exchange gifts and enjoy their children spinning the dreidel in a friendly game.
As they win or lose with each spin, they remember the letters on the dreidel and what they mean. The miracle will not be forgotten.
Daniel E. Spector is a member of Temple Beth El in Anniston. He has a doctorate in history, focusing on Jewish history and the Middle East.