IMAGES OF hanukkiot decorate Jerusalem’s Old City walls: ‘By lighting candles, we declare that there is no darkness that Jewish faith cannot overcome.’.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
During the eight days of Hanukkah, we celebrate the victory of a small group of Jews over the foreign rule that wanted to coerce the Jewish nation living in the Land of Israel to abide by its pagan faith and worldview. This victory, occurring approximately 2,200 years ago, continues to be a milestone for generations, teaching us about dedication to spiritual principles.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Hellenistic Greek king of the Seleucid Empire, wished to forcibly impose Hellenistic culture in the Land of Israel. He did so through destructive decrees forbidding Jews from fulfilling their commandments. The family of the Hasmoneans, priests residing in the Modi’in area not far from Jerusalem, led a revolt that ultimately culminated – with God’s help and unexpectedly – in the victory over the Seleucid Empire and the establishment of Jewish rule in the Land of Israel.
One of the heights of the revolt was when the Hasmoneans and their supporters succeeded in removing the foreign rule from the Temple in Jerusalem, purifying the Temple and removing the pagan symbols that the Greeks had brought into it, and lighting the Temple’s Menorah. In commemoration of this miracle, and to publicize the miracle of lighting the Menorah in the Temple, we celebrate Hanukkah and light candles for eight days.
It is interesting to note that Hanukkah falls during the darkest time of the year, in Kislev-Tevet, when the days are shortest and the nights longest. The candles we light on the nights of Hanukkah, which is why we call Hanukkah the Festival of Lights, illuminate the darkness during the darkest time. This is strongly linked to the essence of this holiday.
In the first verses of the Torah that describe the creation of the world, sages revealed clues regarding the future of the Jewish nation – the nation that was slated to receive the Torah.
This is what they wrote about the verse “Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2) as a hint of the hardships the Jewish nation would suffer: “and ‘darkness’ – this is [a reference to] the exile of Greece, which darkened the eyes of Israel with its decrees, as it is said to them, ‘Write on the horn of an ox that you have no share in the God of Israel’” (Genesis Raba 2).
Many explanations have been offered as to why the Greeks decreed that the declaration of heresy should be etched on an ox’s horn. Some connect this decree to the games of oxen that were prevalent in Hellenistic culture; others claimed that in ancient times, the horn of an ox was used to feed babies. But one thing is clear about this decree according to all commentaries: The Greeks were not satisfied with slow acculturation. They forced the Jews to openly and clearly declare that they give up their faith.
This violent coercion is defined as “darkness.” It seemed then that the future was bleak, unsustainable. However, victory over this foreign and coercive rule was conveyed specifically by illuminating the darkest nights. By lighting candles, we declare that there is no darkness that Jewish faith cannot overcome. Jewish history proves this, and the foundational story of Jewish history in this regard is the story of Hanukkah.
The declaration we express by lighting Hanukkah candles is not meant for the enemy of ancient history, and not even for any specific enemy of today. It is a declaration that is relevant at any period of time. It is external, facing foreign cultures that are not suitable to the spirit of Judaism, and it is internal – for our families and future generations. It is a declaration of loyalty to ancient Jewish tradition and to the light that it shines in the darkness.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.
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