Hanukkah - December

The Festival of Hanukkah continues for eight nights and days.

Historically, Hanukkah celebrates the time, in the year 165 BCE, when a group of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, successfully battled the Seleucid Greeks to retake the Temple in Jerusalem and regain the right to practice Judaism.  The central Hanukkah story, however, is not about the fighting. Instead, the holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple following the battle.  In fact the word “Hanukkah” means “dedication.”  The inside of the Temple was illuminated with a menorah, or candelabra, with seven branches. The light symbolized the ongoing presence of God.  The story comes down that when the Maccabees searched for olive oil for burning in the menorah, they could only find enough oil to last for one day.  Yet, when they lit the lamp anyway, by some miracle the oil burned for eight days until new oil could be acquired. This was taken to mean that the ongoing light of God’s presence continued to be with them.

To commemorate this miracle, Jews all over the world light a modified menorah for eight days of Hanukkah.  The Hanukkah menorah has nine branches instead of seven, each holding a lamp or candle. Eight of the candles each represent one of the eight days that the oil burned, while the one extra light, called the “shammash”, is generally used to light the others. On the first night one light (plus the shammash) is kindled, on the second night two lights and so forth until the eighth night when all the lights are kindled. Other customs include a traditional game played with a spinning top called a “dreydel,” and giving children Hanukkah “gelt” (money – usually today chocolate “coins” wrapped in gold-colored foil).  Potato pancakes, called “latkes,” and jelly doughnuts are special foods for Hanukkah because they both are foods fried in oil.

The holiday has many joyous meanings, including the celebration of religious freedom.  What all the meanings of Hanukkah have in common, however, is the ability of a small group or a small effort to make a big difference.  Small efforts – especially if done with great dedication (which is the meaning of the word “Hanukkah”) – can inspire big things.  One candle can dispel all the darkness around it. A small weak people can overcome far greater strength.  The human spirit can overcome great adversity.  Religious people see in this somehow the hand of God.  But regardless of  your theology, there is  great hope in the Hanukkah message that we can overcome great challenges.  So many people in our lives are dealing with difficult circumstances, as we can see here everyday.  Hanukkah reminds us that somehow, especially with the help of each other, we can find within ourselves the hope and the strength to see our way through our most difficult times.