Hanukkah is sometimes called the “Jewish Christmas” because it occurs at the same time of the year. And this year, as it happens, it actually began on the same day.
Hanukkah, however, has its own origins and meaning, and begins with the triumph of the Maccabee guerrilla fighters, around 165 BCE, against the Seleucid empire, which then dominated Israel.
Under the ruler Antiochus, the Seleucids, based in Syria, tried to “Hellenize” the Israeli colony by introducing Greek customs and repressing the native Hebrew religion and its practices. Eventually the Maccabees, a priestly family, regained control of the temple in Jerusalem, which had been used for pagan rites.
Under Jewish law the temple needed to be cleansed and reconsecrated before it could be used for Jewish worship. Part of the ritual involved burning a lamp. But enough oil for only one day was available, and it would take eight days to prepare a new supply. According to legend, however, the oil miraculously burned for eight days.
Thus the tradition of the menorah, an eight-branched candelabra (sometimes with one in the middle), was created. On the first night of Hanukkah observant Jews light one candle, and on subsequent nights they light another until all eight are burning, symbolizing the increasing triumph of light over darkness.
The candlelights of what is also called the Festival of Lights can be viewed in several ways. In the days before electricity the idea of light in the darkness was a more powerful beacon of hope and comfort than we moderns can perhaps comprehend. The light could also be taken to mean the progressive triumph of the light of Yahweh’s teachings and wisdom over the darkness of ignorance and superstition.
Rooted in the struggle against religious and political oppression, Hanukkah’s lights are also a symbol of freedom and the hope that it will grow from strength to strength in a world where tyranny and oppression are all too commonplace. Hanukkah is a powerful reminder that tyranny can be defeated and freedom restored.
Activists in London have proposed appearing in front of Iranian embassies around the world during Hanukkah this year, and simply and silently lighting candles for eight nights to declare solidarity with the aspirations of Iranians who desire freedom.
Freedom, especially the freedom to practice one’s religion without hindrance, is a universal aspiration. Jews and non-Jews alike can honor the spirit of Hanukkah by resolving to renew their vigilance and determination to protect freedom where it exists and to spread its blessings where its light does not yet shine.