Shalom y’all, and welcome to this week’s episode of Better Know a Jewish Holiday!
Today we’re visiting Hanukkah: The fightin’ Festival of Lights!!
Hanukkah (AKA Chanukkah, Hannukah, or pretty much any other spelling with a lot of n’s and k’s) is an eight-day festival celebrated in December—or sometimes in late November ... or maybe even early January. This year it started Sunday night.
The proximity to a certain other December holiday has made Hanukkah among the most popular Jewish holidays for non-Jews, so I’ll try to shed some light on the less commercial aspects of the story.
Let’s start with the story. And I ain’t just talking about just the oil lasting eight nights.
This holiday falls squarely into my favorite category of Jewish celebration:
In this case, the “They” in question are the Assyrian/Seleucid Greeks. Their empire covered much of the Middle East and Mesopotamia, but the culture was very Hellenistic Greek.
Greek culture was super alluring at the time. The Jews had been soundly defeated and were living as second-class citizens in their own land, and besides, Jews had to pray to some imaginary invisible God who was everywhere while the Greeks had awesome impressive statues that could sometimes talk to you:
So like much of the rest of the world, many Jews were assimilating into Greek culture, but a few pesky priests insisted on continuing to pray to their own God and were all like:
Along comes King Antiochus (in Hebrew ant-ee-OH-khoos), who you might say was a little full of himself. He traveled around the empire forcing everyone to give offerings and bow down to statues of him.
This was going swimmingly until they got to Modiin (near Jerusalem) and tried to get an old priest named Mattathias (Jew, not Amish) to do the whole "pray to the king," thing. It went poorly.
Mattathias and his sons killed a Jew who went along with the Greeks and then killed a bunch of the king’s men and ran off into the woods. At this point Antiochus is all like:
And here’s where things get interesting, because the Greeks had a big army, elephants, weapons, and pretty much everything you would think one would need to win a war against a pesky little native group trying to start an uprising. What they didn’t count on was Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee.
Despite being vastly outmanned, the Jews managed to defeat the Greeks thanks to their cunning, knowledge of the land, and… What’s that word again Michele Bachmann?
This military victory is the first big miracle of Hanukkah and the one that many Rabbis focus on when they talk about the holiday.
We celebrate the Maccabees triumph over a repressive government trying to force them to worship a certain way and not respecting their religion. Thankfully we now live in a county where all those who wish to pray can do so however they choose without fear of… oh wait. What’s that?
Seriously, the Maccabees may have been a little zealous in their religious fervor, but Hanukkah is a holiday about spreading light and love. Hopefully that can shine through in these difficult times.
Anyway, as Paula Deen knows all too well, everything always plays second fiddle to oil.
So, after the Maccabees won the war the went back to re-dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem. They needed to light the MENORAH (more on this later) with specially sealed pure olive oil. Unfortunately, they only had one little jar of the stuff and they wouldn’t be able to get more for at least a week!
But straggly modern Vincini was wrong! The oil lasted for 8 whole days!
So to commemorate the miracle, Jews celebrate for eight days by lighting the HANUKKIAH (more on this in a bit), a candelabrum with nine candles. The shamash (shah-MAHSH or SHA-mas depending on who you ask) is lit first every night and then is used to light the other candles based on what night of the holiday it is.
We also eat special oily foods:
And play weird games:
Bonus super geeky data journalism breakdown of dreidel odds:
And, these days, we've created new traditions to supplement the old, including a lot of parody videos to pop culture songs (sampling below):
There's a ton more to this holiday, so feel free to ask any questions you may have in a comment or on the “Ask the Jew” page.
Side story on Menorah Vs. Hanukkiah:
As Hanukkah was set to begin last year, my friends over at the AP Stylebook, who sent out this anti-Semitic tweet:
Well, I was unimpressed.
So I launched a campaign using the hashtags #HanukkiahGate and #MenschUpAP.
At long last, after three furious days of tweets such as the one above, sweet victory was mine:
One of the prouder moments of my life to be honest.
So with all of these victories in mind, go out there and celebrate!
Chag Sameach (Khag sah-MAY-akh)!
About the Jew
The Jew is an Uber driving, Bar Mitzvah DJing, yoga teaching ex-journalist from Ann Arbor, Michigan who attends rabbi School in NYC.