Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Happy Hanukkah - Festival of Lights & Feast of Dedication

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. I thought that I'd refresh my memory on the history and meaning of Hanukkah since many people I know are celebrating starting tonight.

I got info out its origins and religious meaning from this website: www.everythingjewish.com/Hanukkah

HANUKAH:
Religious Meaning

By: Amy J. Kramer

HaRabim Beyad HaMeatim: The victory of the few over the many. This Hebrew phrase stands for the unfaltering resolve of the Jewish people. It was not only true in the days of the Hashmonaim, it is true today. The tiny land of Israel has always been surrounded by hostile nations. Even before the Maccabean victory over the Greek army, and many times after, the Jewish nation has defied the odds.

According to all the calculations of military experts and against all rules of logic, the Jews should never have had the ability to defeat their enemies, especially when it came to the Greek empire. And even when Jews were expelled from their lands, they have always returned. Our enemies may have won battles, but they have never won the war.

The miracle is not only that we have won major battles throughout countless generations, but that we even dared to fight. The Maccabbees were outnumbered, poorly trained and hardly equipped, but that did not stop them from trying. On Hanukah, we need to pause from all the festivities and present giving, and remember to thank G-d for the miracle of deliverance, and for the spirit that enabled the Maccabbees to fight this kind of "David-against-Goliath" battle and emerge victorious.

As Jews today, we fight the same fight. The names and places may have changed, but as individuals, and as a nation, we need that Maccabean spirit to find the courage from within to best those who wish us harm.

Or La’Goyim: A light to all nations. For 2,000 years, the eight branches of the Menorah have stood as a triumphant symbol of the Jewish will to live and worship in freedom. The Jewish struggle between the forces of darkness and light, Hellenism and Judaism, still has relevance today.

The influence of Hellenism, the primary source of western civilization, is still felt today. It was the Greeks, and later the Romans, that brought institutions like philosophy, history, books, schools, athletics, architecture, and the concept of democracy to Europe, and later on, to America. According to Historians, there is almost nothing that does not have its roots in ancient Greece.

Consequently, it is not difficult to understand why so much of the good in Hellenism was hard to resist. It still proves hard to resist. Throughout the ages our people have always needed to carefully incorporate modern influences while maintaining our unique identity and unfaltering mission. The same forces that caused Jews to assimilate in the times of Judah Maccabee are still alive today.

The difference between then and now is that the Jews who lived through the miracle of Hanukah had something that Jews today have lost ~ a closeness to the Temple and a memory of its services.

Every day the holy Menorah was lit in the Temple. It symbolized the light and warmth of Torah and reminded the Jews of their unique role and awesome responsibility as G-d’s chosen people: To be an Or La’Goyim, a light and a shining example to all nations.

In a very real way, the menorah is like the Jewish soul, a flame that can be put out, but never completely extinguished. The Greeks tried and failed. Many have followed. But as long as Jews seek to light the menorah, like the Maccabees did, the flame of Jewish life can never go out. The Maccabees found enough oil for one night, but G-d saw their devotion and caused the tiny flame to burn for eight nights.

To be an Or La’Goyim is to keep the torch burning, often under impossible odds. We are a tiny nation given the difficult task of keeping the Torah alive in a world that is often hostile to the Jewish way of life. When we don’t know how to keep the fire burning, we need to look to the miracle of Hanukah. Find enough oil to last one night, and have faith that G-d will step in to make it last eight nights

Origins
By: Amy J. Kramer

Hanukah, Feast of Dedication / Festival of Lights

Hanukah, the Hebrew word meaning dedication, is celebrated for eight days in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which usually occurs in mid to late December.

Hanukah recalls the struggle for religious freedom and commemorates the victory of the Jews over the Hellenistic Syrians in the year 165 B.C.E.

The story begins in 338 B.C.E. when Philip of Macedon invaded Greece. Athens and the Greek states, along with their pagan customs, became part of the Macedonian empire. Two years later, Philip died, and his son, Alexander, assumed the throne.

Alexander the Great, as he was known, conquered territories from Macedonia and Greece across the Persian empire to the borders of India. Included in this empire were Egypt and Israel, then considered part of Syria.

When Alexander’s army reached Jerusalem, the Jews, already under Syrian occupation, did not resist. It was Alexander and his forces that first brought Hellenism to Jerusalem and the Jewish people. However, the Jews did not rush to adopt the Greek religion and culture. For all its beauty and accomplishments, especially in the fields of athletics, theater and philosophy, Hellenism had a dark side.

In ancient Greece, behavior that is today considered deviant, such as infanticide, pedophilia, adultery and institutionalized prostitution, were routine and even encouraged. To Jews, who valued the Torah and purity of family life, these aspects of Hellenistic culture was incompatible with their own.

When Alexander died, his empire was divided between his generals: Antigonus, Seleucus, and Ptolemy. Antigonus ruled Macedonia and Greece; Seleucus ruled Babylonia, Persia and Syria; and Ptolemy ruled Egypt and Israel.

Like Alexander, Ptolemy was a great champion of Hellenism. The empire he established dominated Israel for almost 100 years. It was under Ptolemaic rulers that many Jews began to adopt aspects of Greek culture. These Jews were referred to as Hellenists. For them, Greek culture represented the way of the future and the fastest way to succeed in Greek society.

In 199 B.C.E., The Seleucid dynasty that ruled Syria took control of Israel from the Greek Ptolemies. It was under the Seleucids that anti-Jewish decrees were first issued against the practice of Judaism. Sabbath observance, the study of Torah, and male circumcisions, for example, were forbidden on pain of death. In addition, Greek Gods and other symbols of Greek culture were put inside the Holy Temple, desecrating the center of Jewish ritual life in Jerusalem.

In the year 167 B.C.E. the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes began a campaign to force the Jews under his rule to formally adopt Greek practices. One Jewish family, five sons and their old father, took a stand.

One day Greek forces arrived at Modiin, the home of Mattityahu, an elder and religious leader of the prestigious Hasmonean family. There, the army established a Greek religious altar and ordered Mattityahu to offer a sacrifice to a pagan god. Mattityahu refused, but while he stood firm, another Jew offered to make the sacrifice. Enraged, Mattityahu killed him and attacked the Greek soldiers. His action sparked a Jewish rebellion, which he and his sons led. They became known as the Maccabees, which in Hebrew, means Men Who are as Strong as Hammers.

Led by Judah Maccabee, the most famous of Mattityahu’s five sons, the Maccabees, a force much smaller than the powerful Greek armies, finally triumphed in 165 B.C.E. On the 25th of Kislev, the Maccabees reclaimed the Jewish Temple, which was, at that point, almost unrecognizable as a place of Jewish worship.

The Talmud says that when the Jewish army wanted to rededicate the Temple, they were unable to find enough specially prepared oil to light the Menorah, a holy lamp, or candelabra, used in the Temple service.

Finally, in one Temple chamber, the Maccabees found a single bottle of oil, which normally would have lasted only one night. However, by a miracle, the one bottle of oil lasted eight nights, until new oil, fit for Temple use, could be produced.

This is the miracle Jews commemorate to this day. By lighting the eight Hanukah lights of the menorah, Jews everywhere recount the triumph of our ancestors against immorality, the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the miracle that a one day supply of oil lasted eight days.

For reasons unexplained, the actual story of Hanukah and its great rebellion was never included as an official book of the Torah. Instead, it was written down in two works known as the Books of the Maccabees. One was written in Greek and the other was written in Hebrew. Both survived by being translated by the Christians. They appear today as the Apocrypha, which is Greek for hidden writings, and can be found in English as an appendix to the bible. There is also a midievil work called Megilat Antiochus, the Scroll of Antiochus, which was modeled after the Scroll of Esther. Even in the Mishnah, where all aspects relating to religious life were recorded, there are only a few references to the holiday and its story.

One of the most famous references, took place in the form of an argument between the first-century rabbis, Hillel and Shamai. The two were known for their heated debates. One of the most famous centered on lighting the menorah. Hillel said the candles should be lit progressively from one to eight, while Shamai believed just the opposite.

Other than this debate, there is little reference to Hanukah. There isn't even a rabbinic discussion about the laws pertaining to the lighting of the menorah, except for a breif mention in the tractate Shabbat 21b, where the question, 'What is Hanukah?' is raised..

Some bible scholars say it was a deliberate omission by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi, who in about 180 A.D., compiled the Mishnah, the codification of the Oral Torah. The rabbi had good relations with the Roman authorities, the rulers of Israel at the time, and may have wanted to minimize mention of an earlier rebellion against a similar overlord. The omission of Hanukah may also have reflected a certain Rabbinic disdain of the latter Hasmonean dynasty of priest-kings who later, ironically, became Hellenists and actually opposed and even persecuted the rabbis.

The fact that the Maccabees became legendary in later years is largely due to Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century of the Christian era. His retelling of the Hanukah story became immensely popular during the Middle Ages. It was Josephus who first referred to Hanukah as "the feast of lights."