Hanukkah – The Festival of Lights

We are celebrating the triumph of the Maccabees, led by Mattityahu and later by his son Judah, over the Greek Syrians, led by Antiochus.

A giant menorah stands in front of a Christmas tree at the Brandenburg gate to celebrate Hanukkah in Berlin December 16, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)
A giant menorah stands in front of a Christmas tree at the Brandenburg gate to celebrate Hanukkah in Berlin December 16, 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)
Every year we look forward to this happy Jewish festival, even though it is not even mentioned in the Bible. Its name means “Dedication” and it falls on 25th of Kislev, close to the gentile festival of Christmas. In a way, it’s a happy coincidence because Diaspora Jewish children have no need to envy their neighbors – they have their own festival of light and joy.
We are celebrating the triumph of the Maccabees, led by Mattityahu and later by his son Judah, over the Greek Syrians, led by Antiochus. As a result, for a time Jewish sovereignty was re-established in Judea.
But we should not forget that it was also a civil war within the Jewish people themselves. The Hellenists admired Greek culture, which they began to emulate; whereas the Maccabees were loyal to Judaism’s ideals and beliefs. They even argued about the rite of circumcision, a fundamental and crucial Jewish ritual that the Hellenists claimed violated the perfection of the body.
In 175 BCE, Antiochus tried to wipe out the Jewish religion entirely by substituting the Greek language, gods and customs. They built giant amphitheaters for sport where Hellenistic Jews also spent their days, neglecting their own holidays and rituals. The final blow came when the Temple was defiled and a giant statue of the Greek god Zeus was erected there, with the Jews ordered to worship it. Some, like Hannah and her seven sons, resisted bravely but passively, choosing death rather than idol worship.
Hundreds hid in caves and suffocated to death, but this bravery accomplished nothing until the Hasmonean family of Mattityahu and his sons at Modi’in raised a banner: “Whoever is for the Lord, follow me!”
A small army sprang up, led by Judah Maccabee. Antiochus sent three large armies to suppress the revolt, but courage and clever military tactics triumphed. The first priority after victory was to purify the Temple.
All the cruses of oil had been defiled except one, but instead of burning for just one day, the miracle we celebrate at Hanukkah is that it lasted for eight days until more oil could be acquired.
Today Hanukkah has a poignant relevance to contemporary Jewish history. We remember not only the heroism of the Maccabees, but parallel heroic acts. Many times in Israel we have seen the victory of a tiny nation against a larger and stronger one, the few against the many, the weak against the strong, spirit over matter.
In 1948, despite overwhelming odds, the young IDF defeated massive Arab armies to usher in the independent State of Israel. Earlier, in World War II, there was widespread Jewish resistance to Hitler’s brutal policies and Jews fought heroically in the ghettos and joined partisan units in forests outside Polish and Russian cities conquered by the Nazis.
Israel’s operation into Entebbe to rescue the hostages in Uganda is another example of modern heroism and our history abounds with examples. The revolt of the Hasmoneans is a symbol of the spirit of Zionism. Today, in Western society, no tyrant is forcing us to abandon our faith, but many Jews are still in great danger of losing their identity. Hellenism, in a different but insidious form, is alive and well today.
To prevent our doing to ourselves what tyrants failed to impose on us, we must cling to our own heritage, customs and faith. We are fortunate in Israel that there is nothing to compete with our own national and religious holidays and traditions, although we pay respect to other communities that have a different heritage.
Hanukkah has broad human significance as a festival of liberty and religious freedom, not just for us, but for all people. It is a humanistic festival par excellence. The symbol of Hanukkah is light and the real miracle is that despite millennia of persecution and dispersion, the light of our people has never been extinguished.

The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel, Searching for Sarah, is available from www.mazopublishers.com or direct from dwaysman@gmail.com.