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Chanukah: The Triumph of Light

Refusing to submit, restoring the shrine.

by
P. David Hornik

Bio

November 27, 2013 - 4:00 pm
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Chanukah, the eight-day Festival of Lights, starts this year on Wednesday evening, the only time it has ever just about coincided with Thanksgiving.

Chanukah, which celebrates the triumph of the few over the many, of light over darkness, goes back over two millennia to a time when Judea was under the rule of the Seleucid Empire. In 198 BCE the Seleucid King Antiochus III ousted the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy V from Judea. Antiochus III was a tolerant ruler who wanted the Jews to practice their religion as they saw fit.

His son and successor Antiochus IV, however, was a different story. In 168 BCE, under his reign, the Second Temple in Jerusalem—the focal point of Jewish worship—was looted, Jews were massacred, and Judaism was outlawed. In 167 BCE, Antiochus IV had an altar to Zeus built in the Temple, banned circumcision, and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the Temple’s altar.

It was what one might call a cultural genocide. Not an attempt at the wholesale destruction of the people themselves, but of their values, beliefs, and identity. According to Jewish tradition, it may have succeeded—without the revolt.

The revolt against Antiochus IV began that same year, 167 BCE, in the Judean foothills and was led by Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons John, Simon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah. The next year Mattathias died and his place was taken by Judah—Judah the Maccabee (“Hammer”). By 165 BCE the revolt had succeeded; the Maccabees and their followers had ousted the monarchy, liberated the Temple, and rededicated it to their God.

It was during this process that, according to the Talmud, the miracle of Chanukah occurred. The Maccabees discovered that almost all the ritual olive oil in the Temple had been contaminated; they found only one container with enough pure oil to keep the Temple’s menorah (candelabrum) lit for one day. But when they used it, it burned for eight days—enough to prepare more of the kosher oil. Jews have been lighting a menorah—or chanukiah as it’s now called in Israel—on Chanukah ever since.

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The Jewish people can keep such a story fresh for 2000 years.

Americans can barely remember the facts of Thanksgiving.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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Cultural genocide? What's that? You mean like the Christians did to the polytheism of Classical civilization? C'mon. Cultural genocide is a bogus concept. Either people are being killed or they are not. Let's hope communism goes the way of cultural genocide ... by choice.
1 year ago
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1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Emperor Antiochus IV said" If you like your religion, you can keep it. Period"
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The fortitude of the Maccabees, in addition to allowing Jewish civilization to survive, made Christianity and Western Civilization possible. If no Jews, then no Jesus.

Thus the whole civilized world, not just the Jews, owes an immeasurable debt to those outnumbered Maccabee militiamen. Perhaps, in some ways, they were not so different from the pilgrims who endured through the hard first New England winters and whose descendants formed up at Lexington and Concord.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Amen. The author notes the unusual quasi-coincidence of the first day of Hannukah with Thanksgivings day this year. May it announce a new Christian recognition of a duty of gratitude towards the Jews.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
'Chanukah entails no Sabbath-like prohibitions on work or study'
Because originally Hanukkah was a celebration of military victory. The religion side of it, was add on as part of cultural history. Since religion was the central component of diaspora, it was only logical to keep it alive in the context of Jewish religion.
As for gift giving, that's is another add on by Jews who lived in Christian countries, who found necessary to counterbalance Christmas. Jews who lived in Muslim countries didn't have the need to adapt Christmas like tradition of gift giving.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I've come full circle on my views of Hanukkah. I used to see it as a weak counterpart to Christmas. I have now "rediscovered" it as an important commemoration for Jews of the modern era.

With many of the other holidays, in order to apply their lessons to the current day, one is required to make (or stretch) analogies, view the original stories as allegories, etc. They are "removed" from most modern life. But this is less true with Hanukkah.

Agreed, we're not worried about sacrificing pigs at "the" temple, but otherwise the story is uncomfortably close. That being the threat to Judaism via assimilation in the US, the more overt threats in Europe, and those by Muslims all over.

Because assimilation is a much less apparent threat, it can be difficult to view the "success" of life in the USA as anything threatening. But it is a quiet problem on a macro scale.

More obvious are the European/Muslim threats which have revived themselves in the very recent modern era. Perhaps though, due to their opacity, they'll foster a reaction of unanimity in Jews -- generating our own modern day "zealots." Arguably, Israel is that: our modern day "zealot" (and thank G-d for it).

With respect to today's threats to Judaism, the story of Hanukkah can be relatively easily transplanted and used as encouragement and inspiration.
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The Jewish people can keep such a story fresh for 2000 years.

Americans can barely remember the facts of Thanksgiving.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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