Discover Chanukah, the festival of lights
This minor Jewish holiday has taken on great significance as a Jewish alternative to Christmas. However, Chanukah is a unique religious holiday with its own food, music, games and traditions. Chanukah need not be compared to another religious holiday, but stands on its own merits for what it teaches about faith. For the story of Chanukah is a story of people of faith taking a stand for their religious freedom.
Early in the fourth century B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered Israel and much of the ancient Middle East. Alexander’s armies brought not only Greek rule, but also Greek culture. On Alexander’s death, his empire fell under the control of lesser kings and kingdoms. By the second century B.C.E., Israel was under Syrian control.
The Syrian leader Antiochus Epiphanes set his sights on Egypt, with Israel the necessary stepping-stone on his path. To bolster his control of Israel and unite his country with a common culture, Antiochus began outlawing Jewish religious practices and enforced a change to Greek culture. As Antiochus program of social change first began, many Jews accommodated themselves to Greek culture with no complaint. Jews stopped circumcising their children, who began to go to a Greek-style gymnasium and learn of Greek gods along with other Greek culture.
By 165 B.C.E., Syria outlawed all Jewish practices. Many Jews, who had made room for some social change as a way to get along with those in political power, found there very way of life under a more serious attack than they had realized. Any outward observance of faith in the God of Israel was severely punished. Torture and murder of those who practiced their faith became commonplace. The Syrians put to death all who were found with scripture. The mothers of sons who were circumcised after the decree went out were put to death together with their sons.
Many Jews continued to practice their faith and were put to death praying the prayer (Known as the Shema for the Jewish word for “hear”) of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul and strength.”
Antiochus took his strongest stand against the faith of Israel by desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem sacrificing a pig on the altar and placing a statue of Zeus there. A group of Jews hid in the wilderness outside of Jerusalem to avoid the Syrian army as it made its way from village to village erecting altars and forcing Jews to sacrifice to Greek gods. The First Book of Maccabees tells of a group of 1,000 men, women and children caught in hiding who were put to death rather than sacrifice to Greek gods.
Mattathias the Hasmonean and his sons heard of the group who died in hiding and vowed to overtake the Syrians by force. Mattathias’ son Judah led the religious revolt. Judah was given the nickname Judah Maccabee, meaning Judah, “The Hammer” for his strength as a resistance fighter. Beating the Syrians in a series of skirmishes, they took back the city of Jerusalem itself with little resistance.
The first order of business was to rededicate the desecrated temple to the one true God. As Mattathias’ sons relit the eternal flame in the Temple, they found there was only enough purified oil for one day, yet it would take eight days to purify new oil for Temple use. Judah Maccabee and his brothers lit the lamp in faith that God would supply their needs. The lamp burned brightly for all eight days of the dedication on the one day’s supply of oil. This miracle was seen as a sign that God had blessed Judah and his brothers in their fight for religious freedom.
Today, Jews around the world remember this blow struck for freedom by lighting a menorah (also called a chanukiah), lighting one new candle each night for the eight nights of the Temple dedication. The Menorah is a nine branch candelabra with one branch higher than the others. This is for the shamash, or servant, candle, which is used to light the others. By the eighth night of Chanukah, all the candles burn brightly in remembrance of the light of God burning brightly in the world after the darkness of Antiochus’ rule.
For all people in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the story serves as a reminder that faith serves as a bright light to carry us through dark times. History has shown that God is faithful to those who seek to keep the light of faith burning.
The text above is my religion column for today's issue of the Tribune & Georgian.
Labels: religion column