American cultural identity is synonymous with revolution and religious freedom. Which makes the story of Hanukkah quintessentially American.
Under Alexander The Great’s Persian empire, government didn’t interfere with religious exercise. Jews and everyone else in Palestine were free to practice any faith with relative autonomy.
But once Alexander died such bonhomie didn’t last. The succeeding Ptolemaic dynasty technically allowed Jews self-rule, but brought drastic changes. Antiochus massacred and oppressed, prohibiting all but his own religion, and placed a Hellenistic priest in charge of the temple in Jerusalem. To make his point, he desecrated it.
The faithful didn’t take that lying down. You’ve probably heard of Maccabees and Pharisees, two Jewish sects who joined forces in revolution: That’s how we get to Hanukkah. It commemorates their rededication of that desecrated temple to the Jewish faith.
Actually, that’s not quite right. The rededication marks the timing, but Hanukkah specifically celebrates what the faithful believe was the miracle of the menorah. In that Jerusalem temple was a candelabrum whose oil supply needed daily refurbishment. Despite having only enough oil for one day, somehow this menorah stayed lit for eight days and nights.
That’s the miracle of Hanukkah. Why are there nine candles in modern menorahs? The middle one lights the others.
Tomorrow’s last evening of Hanukkah closes a beautiful tradition, yet Hanukkah is less important in Jewish faith than is Christmas to Christians. Rosh Hashanah (new year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Passover have greater religious significance. Culturally, however, its December timing with many other cultural and religious traditions makes it a festive family holiday.
We at The Press wish our Jewish friends a very Happy Hanukkah.
“May the lights of Hanukkah usher in a better world for all mankind.” — Anonymous blessing.
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.