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Chanukah: The Triumph of Light


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.