It all began when Antiochus IV ordered Jewsâ€”under penalty of deathâ€”to abandon their religion. He appointed Hellenists as High Priest in Jerusalem, plundered the Temple treasury to pay his debts, and built a fortified Greek polis in Jerusalem. Faced with a choice of apostasy or rebellion, the Jews chose to rebel. The revolt achieved rapid success, led by the charismatic and brilliant Maccabee clan. At the end of the year 164 BCE the first Chanukah was celebrated and the Temple in Jerusalem purified.
â€œWhat is Chanukah?â€ asks the Talmud. â€œâ€¦Eight daysâ€¦during which eulogies are not made and fasting is not permitted.â€ The Greeks had defiled all of the Temple oil. Only one jar was left, sufficient to burn for one day. But a miracle occurred. The oil burned for eight days! Jewish sages declared these eight days for rejoicing and lighting of Chanukah lights at the entrance to each Jewish home to publicize the miracle.
To remember the oil of the original miracle, oil is used until today for lighting menorahs and cooking special holiday foods. Although the military victory over Greece was itself miraculous and celebrated, Jewish autonomy was short-lived. The Romans expelled or killed most of the Jewish nation by the year 70 AD, leaving only a small population. However Chanukah, celebrating freedom of religious belief and practice, remains a vibrant holiday more than 20 centuries after the fall of Greece. Chanukah is truly joyous because it symbolizes the entire struggle for spiritual freedom, the light which pierced the darkness of tyranny and persecution.
As Jews and our friends light the Chanukah menorah this year, we pray for the light of tolerance, religious freedom, and peace to spread across the world.