Chanukah is the holiday that celebrates the victory of a small Jewish band of warriors, called the Maccabees, over the Syrian Greeks who ruled in the land of Israel some 2,000 years ago.
The Maccabees saved the Jewish people from becoming just like everybody else, so that we today can be proud of being Jewish.
THE HISTORY OF CHANUKAH
Long ago, over two thousand one hundred and fifty years to be exact, the Land of Israel was part of the Greek empire.
The Syrian-Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes wanted everyone in his empire to look and act and think like the Greeks - and most of the people did.
They worshipped Greek gods and ate and dressed just like the Greeks. There were even some Jews who wanted to be like the Greeks. They were called mityavnim from the Hebrew word Yavan (Greece). But many other Jews insisted on keeping the Torah, just as they had always done.
Antiochus wanted all of the Jews to be like the mityavnim. He decreed that the Jews in the Land of Israel could no longer keep the laws of the Torah. There would be no more sacrifices in the holy Temple, no more keeping Shabbat, no more Brit (circumcision) for Jewish boys, and no more Rosh Chodesh - celebration of the new Hebrew month.
THE GREEKS PUT A STATUE IN THE TEMPLE
Instead, King Antiochus’ soldiers put a statue of the Greek idol Zeus into the Temple in Jerusalem and sent idols to all the cities in Israel. They ordered the Jews to sacrifice pigs and eat their meat and other forbidden foods. Many Jews ran away and hid in caves in the mountains, but many others were afraid. They did whatever the Greeks told them to do.
A BRAVE PRIEST FIGHTS BACK
Mattityahu was an old priest (Kohen) from the famous priestly family of the Hashmonaim.
He and his five brave and righteous sons lived in the town of Modiin. One day, the Greeks set up an idol right in the center of Modiin!
When one of the mityavnim tried to sacrifice to the idol, Mattityahu took a sword and killed the man on the spot! He cried: “mi lashem eilail”
- “Whoever is for God, come after me!” And they did! Thousands of Jews came to Modiin to fight the Greeks. And so the Jewish rebellion began.
THE FIRST MIRACLE - THE VICTORIOUS JEWS
Mattityahu appointed his son Judah as commander of the Jewish army. Judah was called the Maccabee - the Hammer – because he pounded away at the enemy. Maccabee is also the abbreviation of the Hebrew words: “mi chamocha ba’eilim Hashem” - Who among the powerful is like you God!
Judah’s faithful soldiers hid in caves or lay in ambush. Even though the Jewish army was smaller, weaker and poorer than the mighty Greek army, they were victorious: they had God on their side! Then, to the great surprise of the Greeks, the Jews succeeded in chasing them out of Jerusalem!
THE MACCABEES IN THE HOLY TEMPLE
When Judah entered the Holy Temple (Beit Hamikdash) in Jerusalem, he saw a sight too terrible to describe. Everything was filthy, broken, ruined and full of Greek idols. The Jews went to work immediately: They washed, cleaned, scrubbed, repaired and rebuilt. And they made a new menorah to replace the one the Greeks had taken away. On the 25th day of Kislev, they finished their work.
Everything was in perfect order. They were finally ready to rededicate the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple) to God.
THE TWO SECOND MIRACLE - A JUG OF PURE OIL
In order to light the menorah, only the purest olive oil, prepared especially for this task, could be used. This oil was kept in jug which were sealed to ensure their purity. But the Greeks had broken all the seals so that the Jews could never use them again. And now there was no pure oil to be found. The kohanim (priests) searched all through the Temple while everyone waited anxiously.
Then, just as they were ready to give up, someone found a small unbroken jug of oil which the Greeks had not seen. The jug was even stamped with the seal of the High Priest.
NOT ENOUGH OIL
Unfortunately, there was only enough oil in the flask to last for one day.
It would take eight days to make new oil. But the Jews did not want to postpone the mitzvah. And so, amidst much thanksgiving, the menorah was lit and the. Temple was rededicated (Chanukah) on the 25th day of Kislev. The second Miracle of Chanukah.
What happened the next day when the oil was finished? It didn’t! The oil just kept burning. On and on, right through the second and third and fourth and fifth day, all the way until the eighth day when the new supply of pure olive oil arrived!
And that is why we celebrate Chanukah each year on the 25th day of Kislev by lighting a menorah with eight branches, to remind us of the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days! And that is why we say the prayers Hallel and “Al Hanissim” on Chanukah, because it’s a time of praising and thanking God - for all Jews, in all times, in all places!
The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top – also called a s’vivon, in Hebrew. On each side is a Hebrew letter: ‘Nun’, ‘Gimel’, ‘Hay”, and ‘Shin’. The letters stand for the phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham - a great miracle happened there.” It is traditionally used to play a lively Chanukah game.
The Greeks decreed that the teaching or studying of Torah was a crime punishable by death or imprisonment. But the children defiantly studied in secret; and when Syrian patrols were spotted, they would pretend to be playing an innocent game of dreidel.