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Why Do Jews Celebrate Hanukkah?

Lighting the menorah (Getty Images)

Lighting the menorah (Getty Images)

by Ariel Feldman (Newsweek)
When asked which Jewish holidays they know, my students frequently name Hanukkah first.

Indeed, it is probably the most public Jewish holiday in the U.S.

Not only does it often coincide with Christmas, but there are also giant menorahs, delicious foods, and, of course, presents.

But despite the ideal conditions for a great holiday — gifts, cuisine, and the right timing—this popular holiday had a rather slow start.

The eight-day long festival of Hanukkah—“dedication” in Hebrew—celebrates the purification of the Temple in Jerusalem. The events that led to it are among the greatest puzzles of ancient Jewish history.

Ira Forman, Special Envoy of the US government to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, lights a torch on the last day of the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, the Hanukkah, at Bartok square of Szekesfehervar town, southwest of Budapest, on December 13, 2015 during a joint commemoration for Hanukkah and a silent demonstration to protest against plans to set up a new statue in honor of Balint Homan who participated as Hungarian minister during the World War II era in drafting legislation that restricted the rights of Hungarian Jews and called for their deportation. On March 6, 2015, the Budapest Municipal Court rehabilitated Balint Homan, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by the post-war Peoples Court in 1946.

At that time, Judea was a part of the vast Seleucid kingdom ruled by Antiochus IV. His predecessors had no problem tolerating the diverse religious beliefs of their subjects. Yet in 167 BCE Antiochus banned Judaism and converted the Jerusalem Temple into a pagan shrine.

To explain the king’s unprecedented actions, some scholars argue that he wished to unify his empire under one religion. Others suggest that Antiochus acted on the advice of the Jewish elites.

These Jews embraced the Hellenistic culture and believed that a strict observance of their ancestral religion led to a dangerous isolation from the rest of the world. According to yet another view, the king’s forceful prohibition of Judaism was a punishment for a Jewish uprising fueled by their separatist religious worldview.

One of the reasons for the lack of a clear-cut explanation of Antiochus’s policy is the scarcity of sources. Most of what we know about his decree, its implementation, and the subsequent Jewish revolt culminating in the first Hanukkah comes from two texts, the First and Second Books of Maccabees.

Given the current popularity of this festival, it is surprising that neither of these Jewish books found its way into the Jewish Bible. Rather, we owe their preservation to Christian copyists.

Of course, Jewish traditional lore also has stories about Hanukkah. Yet these are relatively few and late.

Curiously, among these late traditions is the one that most Jews are best familiar with—the story of the magical oil vessel known as the cruse. Found undefiled in the desecrated Temple, a jar with a mere day’s supply of sacred oil for the Temple candelabrum miraculously lasted for the eight days of purification.

This celebrated miracle pales in comparison to the remarkable victories of the rebels led by Judas Maccabeus. However, since the action-packed accounts of the apocryphal Books of Maccabees were less known among later Jews, the miracle of the cruse, found in the authoritative Babylonian Talmud, became the hallmark of the divine presence in the Hanukkah story.

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