When most people think about Hanukkah, the first thing that comes to mind for them is the miracle of the oil; for many non-Jews, Hanukkah is seen as "The Jewish Christmas"; but what is really Hanukkah all about?
Yes, there is the Maccabean revolt against the Greek, a fight for religious freedom that came more than 2,200 years before it became fashionable. A fight to reclaim the National and Religious center of the Jewish People: The Temple in Jerusalem sitting atop the Temple Mount. Jewish guerillas harrassed and defeated the Syrian Greeks and restored a measure of independence for Judea.
So what is the oil miracle all about? Well, according to the Torah's instructions for the Temple, it is preferable to use consecrated pure Olive Oil for the Temple Menorah lamps. It is however pointed out that the important thing is to light them, and if the pure oil is not available, you can use regular one. I guess this complicates the idea of the miracle of the oil...
The Hasmoneans (Maccabeans) wanted to liberate Jerusalem by Sukkoth in order to allow the People to gather in a free Jerusalem and reconsecrate the Temple, as King Josiah had done all those years before. It was suposed to be a National celebration of freedom and the celebration of one of the three "Pilgrimage Festivals". So Sukkoth, when we include Simchat Torah at the end, lasted eight days...the eight days of Hanukkah.
Unfortunately, the Jewish forces were not able to liberate Jerusalem in time for Sukkoth and arrived several weeks later...yet a decision was made to celebrate Sukkoth nevertheless and bring everybody up to Jerusalem. So how about the candles?
Lighting fire was in ancients times a way of consecrating a time for the Deities, and Jews did it themselves all the time. Therefore, commemorating the liberation of the Temple with lamps (or later on candles) made sense. Why Eight? because the National Gathering lasted eight days. Why the Shamash? Because in ancient tradition it was believed that the central lamp of the Temple Menorah had been lit uninterrupted since the time of Moses, and every time the Menorah had to be lit, it was with the fire of the central lamp. An echo of this tradition survives today in Jewish synagogues with the presence of the "Ner Tamid" (Eternal light) in front of the Aaron HaKodesh that holds the Torah.
So what about lighting only one candle at a time, adding one each day? For this, we need to look at the very long argument between Hillel and Shammai as to the meaning of the Miracle...the Miracle being that the Jewish guerillas defeated the Greek army. While Shammai insisted that all lamps had to be lit the first day, and one less every day until the end of the Holiday, Hillel insisted that we had to lit one lamp the first day, two the second and so on. Hillel insisted that the lamps had to be lit from right to left, and Shammai insisted that they had to be lit from left to right. The conclusion? we follow today Hillel on how many candles we light each day, but we follow Shammai on how we light them.
The Maccabean Revolt was indeed a proclamation to the world that the Jewish People stood united behind their demand to be allowed to worship according to their own conscience and preferences. They considered their religious beliefs and their culture to be the cement that bound them together as a People, and were willing to defy the odds to keep that right. As many other celebrations in Jewish life, the way we do it is a compromise between the ideas of many people; a compromise that defined the celebration over the course of generations - ever changing and yet unchanged.
In our days, Israel is the symbol of our Modern Day Hanukkah. Israel, that was born of the efforts of several generations of pioneers who set up the foundations of the State. Israel, that provided a home and a shelter to the survivors of the Nazi genocide and to those who were expelled from the lands where their families lived for milennia in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere. Israel, that became the place of ingathering for our People and the symbol of our resilience.
Today Israel is under attack, not with traditional weapons, but with the ideology of hate that questions the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. In the days of old, the Hasmonean family led the people to reclaim their right; in the nineteen century Theodore Hertzl led the people to reclaim their right. It is indeed said that in each generation our enemies rise to destroy us, but a leader comes up to rescue our people. Who are the Hasmoneans of our time? We all are. Step up to the plate and proudly proclaim who you are. Past generations and the generations to come are looking at us...can we afford to fail them?
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