by Marvm Tameanko

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The most popular and joyous Jewish holiday is Chanukah. And why should it not be? It is a festival that celebrates freedom from Seleucid (Syrian/Greek) oppression and the re-establishment of the Jewish commonwealth under the Maccabees (Hasmonaeans) in 164 B.C. Without Chanukah Judaism, as we know it today, would not exist. But the modem version of the Chanukah festival has been modified and re-molded over the centuries and many of its marvelous origins have been forgotten.

Most of us still teach our children that the great 'miracle' of Chanukah was the discovery of a little jar of oil in the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem, which would have burned for only one day but, miraculously, lasted for eight. This is a wonderful children's story and it has been re-told faithfully for at least the past 1,500 years, but it is only a folk tale and it conceals and diminishes the real miracle that happened on the 25th of kislev in 164 B.C. On that day the army of the Maccabeans recaptured most of Jerusalem from the Syrians and then cleansed and rededicated the holy Temple. The Hebrew word Chanukah means 'dedication' and the original festival was a commemoration of the Maccabean military victories over the Syrians and a celebration of freedom for many years before the story of the little jar of oil made its appearance in Jewish literature. Because of this, I believe that the tradition of giving gifts during the eight day holiday, including money (gelt in Yiddish), was established during the first Maccabean Chanukah ceremonies in 164 B.C.

For the real origins and meaning of Chanukah we can turn to ancient records including the coins struck by the Seleucids and the Hasmonaeans. The Books of Maccabees, in that part of the Bible called the Apocrypha, were written in 120 B.C., 44 years after the events took place. The first book describes the capture and rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the defeat of the Syrians and the victory celebrations that lasted for eight days. The Syrians under king Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, (God Manifest) who willed over Israel at that time, decided to constrain the unruly Jews by imposing Greek culture and religious customs on them. Also, the Seleucid king assumed the authority to appoint the High Priest in Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple by erected a shrine to the Greek god, the Olympian Zeus. The Syrian king then tried to destroy the roots of Judaism by prohibiting circumcision, the observance of the Sabbath, the dietary laws, and the religious festivals. The country- folk living in the hills around Jerusalem had not been intimidated by this forced conversion to Hellenism and, led by a minor priest named Mattathias of the Hasmonaean clan, they revolted. Using hit-and-run, guerilla-like tactics, the first ever recorded in history, the zealous Jews defeated several large Syrian armies sent against them. The Jewish military commander was Judah, a son of Mattathias, nicknamed the 'Maccabee', perhaps meaning the 'Hammer', or as some historians say, taken from the Hebrew acronym for the battle cry, "Who is like unto Thee among the powers, 0' Lord". Judah's military strategy was single. Ambush and kill the enemy general with a concentrated strike force then put the Syrian, demoralized and leaderless army to flight. After several battles, Judah and his brothers captured Jerusalem, rededicated the Temple and decreed that the eight days be celebrated forever as " a festival of joy and gladness" (I Maccabees 4:49-59). No mention is ever made in the books of the Maccabees of the little jar of oil that lasted eight days and the real miracle was, of course, the amazing military victories of tiny Israel over the mighty Seleucid armies.

The second book of Maccabees is a follow-up to the first book and gives more details intended to convince the Jews in the diaspora, especially in Alexandria, to adopt the new religious festival, which they were slow to do. The second book also explained why the holiday was celebrated for eight days. It said that because of the Syrian desecration of the Temple the Jews were unable to celebrate the very important pilgrim festival of Sukkot, which would have been held a few months earlier. The first Chanukah was meant to replace this lost Sukkot festival and the people came to the re-dedicated temple bearing palm fronds (lulavs) and citrons (etrogs) just as they would have done on Sukkot. They kindled many lights to illuminate the Temple and sang the hymn of praise, the Hallel. (II Maccabees 10:1-8). And they celebrated Chanukah for eight days, the same length as the Sukkot festival (including the day of Shemini Atzeret). The message to the Alexandrian diaspora prefacing the second book of Maccabees asked the Egyptian Jews - "to observe the Festival of Sukkot in the month of Kislev" (II Maccabees 1:1-9). Sukkot was probably the most significant festival in those days because it contained ancient, important agricultural and harvest rituals such as the prayer for rain during the planting season. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur became the foremost high holidays for Jews only after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70.

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