The Story of Hanukkah

by Ryan Zimmerman 

Thawed though she may be, Mariah Carey technically has a month yet before she reaches the pinnacle of her power; it’s a shame that Jews don’t have an equivalent superstar, because we don’t have to wait nearly as long for our holiday to arrive. Maybe we should appoint the Miami Boys Choir. The first night of Hanukkah is December 7th — the 25th day of Kislev, the month of dreams, according to the Hebrew calendar. 

Although Hanukkah is technically a very minor religious holiday (not even mentioned in the bible), it is one of the most well known and beloved Jewish celebrations in North America. This can be directly attributed to Jewish cultural integration with a Christian supermajority. Exchanging gifts, as many now do on the nights of Hanukkah, is a tradition picked up as a response to the North American consumer-driven Christmas season. Hanukkah preserves its own longstanding traditions as well, among these the eating of fried and dairy foods, gambling of chocolate Gelt on dreidel games, and public menorah lightings. 

Hanukkah’s purpose is to commemorate the Maccabees’ victory over Greek pagan oppressors in Jerusalem, and the overall persistence of the Jewish people in the face of repression. In 167 BCE, King of the Seleucid Greek Empire Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed Judaism and repurposed the Second Temple in Jerusalem to worship Zeus. A small group of Jews – the Maccabees – fought back and took control of Jerusalem back from the Seleucids, the first major victory of what would become a successful campaign for independence. However, there is more nuance to the story; the Maccabees’ fight was also against those Jews they believed to be ‘in bed with gentiles’ — those who favored cultural assimilation. They were religious extremists. Although the Maccabees would ultimately defeat the Seleucids, Judaism in Israel would not remain ‘pure’ as their vision for the future demanded. 

As soon as the Maccabees got back into the temple, they relit the Ner Tamid, the ‘eternal light’ that hangs above the ark in synagogues to symbolize God’s presence. They immediately sent a messenger out to get more oil – inside the temple was but one jar of oil, which would only keep the candle lit for a single day. As the legend goes, that single jar lasted eight days and eight nights – all the way until the messenger returned with more oil. 

The history of the Jewish resistance can be found in Maccabees I and II, but the story of the miraculous oil does not appear in the Talmud until centuries after the uprising itself. 

Lighting the menorah keeps the story of Hanukkah fresh in our minds. Menorahs come in all shapes, sizes, and appearances; the only thing that remains consistent about them is that they have nine empty spots for candles, one in a typically distinct position. This spot is for the shammash, or the candle that is customarily lit first and used to light the rest of the candles. However, it is the rest of the candles that are the most significant; they are intended solely for memorializing and remembering the Hanukkah miracle, which means they cannot be used for illumination. If one needed extra light, they would use shammash. The increasing number of candles serves to beautify; each night of Hanukkah, one more of these is added, and the menorah becomes ever brighter. Candles are placed on the menorah from right to left, but lit from left to right. 

Here are just a few of the awesome, unique menorahs I found online:

Jews around the world have differing opinions of a contemporary Hanukkah – the general consensus? It’s “just another example of American meshugas (craziness)” (Forgasz). For many American Jews, Hanukkah is the only time they connect to their religious identity. Personally, I adore Hanukkah. I am glad that Americans have chosen a harmless holiday to reshape in Christmas’ image, and proud of the way that this modern Hanukkah keeps Judaism in the public eye (despite less than 2.4% of the population being Jewish). I think Hanukkah is a survival story of Jewish culture, of commensalism and epiphyte orchids growing along tree branches to reach the sunlight. 

Before I leave you, a gift. Most kids had “Oh Hanukkah” or “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel” — I had the Jewish equivalent of Pentatonix. This parody of “Dynamite” gets stuck in my head even on the hottest days of July. So from me to you, Chag Sameach (happy holidays), and enjoy the Maccabeats.