The miracle of Hanukkah
Most of us are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Christmas next week, but there is another religious celebration about to begin.
It’s called Hanukkah — traditionally spelt Chanukkah — and it’s a custom that predates the birth of Jesus and the celebration of Christmas. The date changes from year to year but this year, the eight-day celebration begins at sunset tomorrow.
This was explained to me by Fiona Elkinson, who runs the Centre for The Jewish Community of Bermuda.
She explained that Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
In 168BC, while Judea was under Greek rule, the Syrian Greek ruler Antiochus IV outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship his Greek gods.
When they refused, he directed his soldiers to descend on Jerusalem where they killed thousands of Jews and desecrated their temple.
“The Jews were not allowed to pray to their God or eat their foods. [Antiochus IV] wanted to demoralise them.
“He put idols in their temples and made them put pigs on their alter. He desecrated it.
“They were not allowed to pray to their God or eat their foods. They were forced to pray to the Greek gods, of which there are many, and Jews did not believe in that.”
In 165BC, after years of persecution, a small group of Jews, now known as the Maccabees, staged a rebellion against Antiochus. Despite their small numbers they defeated him, drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem and reclaimed their temple.
“There weren’t very many Maccabees,” Ms Elkinson said. “Maybe a couple thousand of them. But on some whim, they managed to win a few battles and get their temple back.”
After reclaiming the temple, the Maccabees went on to rebuild their altar and rededicate their temple by lighting the menorah. The menorah, now known as the symbol of the Jewish faith, is a golden candelabrum with seven branches. It’s an ancient Hebrew fixture in the sanctuary with only the purest-quality olive oil allowed to burn its lamps.
The Maccabees went to light the menorah and ran into a significant problem — there was no sacred or pure oil left in the temple.
“They couldn’t find any oil to relight the menorah,” Ms Elkinson said.
“The story goes that they searched for broken jars and jugs and found a little bit of oil here and there that managed to be preserved through battle. But it was only enough to last for a very short time.”
What they were able to scrape together did not seem to be enough to keep the menorah lit. But they lit it anyway and went out to source more oil from neighbouring cities. To their surprise, when they returned, the menorah was still burning. The oil lasted for eight days.
“The significance of the eight days was, just like now, oil was not available in that country. So they had to go somewhere else to find it and it would take days to get it back to Jerusalem. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the little oil they found lasted for eight days until they were able to return with more oil.”
This incredible event inspired the annual eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, which means rededication. The Hanukkah menorah has eight candles in commemoration of the each of the eight days the oil burnt.
Some Biblical scholars believe that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, which of course would come as no surprise since Jesus was a Jew.
John 10:22 speaks of Jesus attending the “festival of dedication”, which was most likely the precursor to the modern Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah falls on a different date each year. This is because the Jewish tradition follows a lunar calendar, in contrast to the Gregorian calendar.
Ms Elkinson said: “A lunar month is 30 days and there are 12 of them, which makes a Jewish year 356 days. This brings the date back and forth on the Gregorian calendar, but Hanukkah is always on the 25th of Kislev every year.”
This year, the 25th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar falls on the December 22, thus beginning the ceremonial time. The eight days of Hanukkah will end at sundown on December 30.
Jews around the world will commemorate this miracle in ancient history by sharing family meals or traditional fried food, playing the old-fashioned game of dreidel and exchanging a small gift each day.
However, the most significant of Hanukkah traditions is the lighting of one candle on the menorah for each of the eight days.
In Bermuda, there is a small but vibrant community of about 120 Jews. During Hanukkah they come together on the first night to light the menorah and share in fellowship.
Tomorrow there will be a Hanukkah ceremony at The Centre for the Jewish Community beginning at sunset.
• If you are interested in joining Hanukkah celebrations or learning more about the Jewish faith, contact the Centre for The Jewish Community in Bermuda: firstname.lastname@example.org
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