Know Your History: The Story of Hanukkah

hanukkah history

How much do you know about Hanukkah? 

To start, the holiday can be spelled two ways:  Hanukkah or Chanukah. It's also known as "the Festival of Lights."

What does Hanukkah mean?

It translates to “dedication” in Hebrew.

When is Hanukkah?

The holiday always begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar and usually falls in November or December. 

How did the Holiday come about?

Many will tell you… the story of the Maccabee's. For this, we look to The events that inspired the Hanukkah holiday took place during a particularly turbulent phase of Jewish history. Around 200 B.C., Judea—also known as the Land of Israel—came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria, who allowed the Jews who lived there to continue practicing their religion. His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, proved less benevolent: Ancient sources recount that he outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. In 168 B.C., his soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.

Led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, a large-scale rebellion broke out against Antiochus and the Seleucid monarchy. When Matthathias died in 166 B.C., his son Judah, known as Judah Maccabee (“the Hammer”), took the helm; within two years the Jews had successfully driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, relying largely on guerilla warfare tactics. Judah called on his followers to cleanse the Second Temple, rebuild its altar and light its menorah—the gold candelabrum whose seven branches represented knowledge and creation and were meant to be kept burning every night.

What about the Hanukkah Miracle? 

According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most central texts, Judah Maccabee and the other Jews who took part in the rededication of the Second Temple witnessed what they believed to be a miracle. Even though there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a fresh supply.

This wondrous event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival. 

Today, Hanukkah is a joyous celebration over eight nights; filled with presents, latkes (potato pancakes), gelt (which is chocolate wrapped as gold coins: The word “gelt” means “money” in both Hebrew and Yiddish) and lit menorahs! 

Happy Hanukkah!

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