Hanukkah - That Weird Holiday Jews Have Instead Of Christmas

in #hanukkah5 years ago

Hanukkah - That Weird Holiday Jews Have Instead Of Christmas

Today is the third day of Hanukkah, that weird holiday Jews celebrate instead of Christmas.

What is it about? Why do we celebrate it today by eating fried food, lighting candles, and spinning dreidels?

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This is a more historically realistic narrative of the events.

It all started after the first Temple was destroyed around 586 B.C.E., by the army of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king. The residents of Judah were sent into a short-lived exile, in what is present-day Iraq. After the fall of Babylon, a lot of Jews returned to the Land of Israel, building a new temple in 515 B.C.E. (This was not the second temple, just a placeholder.)

Alexander the Great was the greek that conquered most of the area in the 4th-century B.C.E leading to the Hellenistic period where Judea was ruled by the Ptolemaic Kingdom from Alexandria forming close economic and philosophical ties between Jewdism and the Hellenistic world.

A lot of more traditional Jews were not happy by the growing secularization of their people. Around 167 B.C.E. a group of orthodox Jews led by Judah Maccabee (nicknamed for a large hammer or mallet), started a civil war with the Hellenistic Jews.

As part of that war, many Hellenistic Jews were killed, children were circumcised and supporters of the Hellenistic worldview were driven from their homes.

The Hellenistic secular Jews were the more politically savvy and dominant group at the time. They turned to the Hellenistic dynasty for help in their civil war and the then-king, Antiochus IV, sent some forces to try and intervene. The Judean scuffle was quickly becoming a very uncomfortable hot spot for the empire.

As part of the crackdown, Antiochus issued decrees limiting religious freedoms in Judea. These measures were directed specifically at the orthodox Jews.

The Maccabees (or Hasmonean, meaning, coming from Hashmonaim, a small settlement in Isreal) used light, mobile forces combined with guerrilla tactics to fight against the slower, more heavily armored Greeks. They won divisively against the Hellenistic forces.

A major part of the Hasmonean victory was taking back Jerusalem, the largest Hellenistic center in the area. The Hasmonean rededicated the temple to Orthodox worship and Judea appointed his youngest brother, Jonathan Apphus, to the position of high priest.

The story goes that when they took back the temple there was hardly any consecrated oil left. They only found one small jug, it’s content saved from desecration by a special seal. One of the duties of the Jewish temple priests was to keep the light on in the holy Menorah - a seven-lamp candelabrum reminiscent of the one used on the track from mount Sinai to Israel.

The jug supposedly held only enough oil for one day but the oil lasted for 8 days by which time more consecrated oil could be delivered.

Judah Maccabee, the newly appointed king, made a deal with the Romans to become an allied state. This made it more difficult for the failing Seleucid empire to come to the aid of the Hellenistic Jews (who kept asking for help).

The civil war didn’t quite die down and the killing lasted all the way to about 63 B.C.E when the Roman general Pompeus took Judea in the name of Rome making it a client kingdom of Rome. The Roman Senate appointed King Herod to rule over the new client kingdom.

It’s important to note that more Jews were killed in that conflict than any other people. However, folklore isn’t the same as history and the story as passed down by the winners is that the Maccabees fought for religious freedom against Greek oppression and won an unlikely, even miraculous, victory.

To commemorate that victory and the miracle of the single oil jug lasting for 8 days we celebrate Hanukkah.

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The fried foods are to comemorate that oil miracle. Each diaspora has its own versions of it ranging from Sufganiyot or Levivot (potato latkes) to Jalebi (Arab), bimuelos (Sephardi), ponchiks (Azerbaijan) or Sfenj (Moroccan).

We light the chanukiah, a nine-branched Hanukkah candelabrum, to denote the oil lasting for 8 days. We light one candle on the first day, two on the second and so on so the light increases through the holiday. You might ask why is it that there are 9 branches in the Hanukkah Menorah and 8 days to the holiday. Well, we use an additional candle to light all the others and we are not allowed to blow any of these candles out. The candle used to light the others is called ‘Shamash’ and it is placed alongside all the other candles lit that day.

It’s traditional to place the lit chanukiah on the windowsill so that the light is visible from the street. Not unlike the beacons of Gondor It was used as a sign of solidarity in the Jewish communities of the diaspora.

The fact it is the middle of winter and we like to see more light at this dark time (particularly in Europe) is probably also a contributing factor.

The dreidels are a sort of gambling game disguised as learning (or vice versa). There is a story that when the Jewish children were forbidden from studying the Torah they studied it anyway and used the dreidels to tell visiting greek soldiers they were only playing a game.

There are four sides to a dreidel containing 4 letters - Nun, Gimel, Hei, Shin (or Pei). It stands for the Hebrew phrase - A great miracle happened there (if you’re away from Israel) or here (if you’re in Israel). Kids gamble their Hanukkah gelt (money, gold) on which letter is going to come up on the next spin.

The custom of giving money to children on this holiday is relatively new, originating in the 17th century. The Jews would give their children money to deliver to their teachers as a thank you for their hard work. In time, the children started demanding their due or ‘cut’ from the deal and a new custom was born. Later still, possibly as a reaction to Christmas, the custom was expanded to small gifts on each of the 8 days culminating in a bigger gift on the last day.

These days in Israel the 'gelt' is often chocolate coins covered in gold foil.

If you have any other question about this holiday feel free to ask. I used various Wikipedia pages as well as what I learned from my (excellent) art history teacher in compiling this post. If you have reservations or would like to correct me let me know.

I would like to end this post with the excellent rendition of the Hanukkah story in the style of Hamilton by the Maccabeats.


(Six13 has another great Hamilton version, recommended by Obama, so you’re welcome to view that as well)

Happy Hanukkah

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Excellent detailed post. I learned some new things about the history of Chanukah. Chag Sameach!

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This was such an excellent write up. Love your voice, the way you explain things. I learned quite a lot reading this, laughed, maybe even shed a tear. You did a great job with this post, thank you for taking the time to do so—your perspective is a beautiful thing.

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