History of Jewish holiday explained
The Christian hymnwriter John Newton (the author of the famous hymn Amazing Grace) wrote these words in another hymn:
Though troubles assail
And dangers affright,
Though friends should all fail
And foes all unite;
Yet one thing secures us,
The scripture assures us,
The Lord will provide.
His call we obey
Like Abram of old,
Not knowing our way,
But faith makes us bold;
For though we are strangers
We have a good Guide,
And trust in all dangers,
The Lord will provide.
In times such as those in which we live, those words seem amazingly appropriate. From foreclosures to 'Occupiers' there is a general dis-ease and frustration in our world today. Those two words are probably even too mild for many situations. For many there is desperation and hopelessness.
In that context we are reminded of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah which will be celebrated this year Dec. 20-28. The background goes to the second century BCE. Antiochus Epiphnes was the ruler of the Seleucid empire, which was a Greek state formed out of the eastern territories conquered by Alexander the Great. Antiochus had promised to let the Jews keep celebrating their ancient holidays and practices, but when there came to be a major conflict between sects in Jerusalem, he was invited by one of the sects to invade Jerusalem. He did so gladly.
Instead of allowing the Jews to continue celebrating 'their ancient customs' as he had agreed, however, he 'settled' the matter by stopping all services in the Jewish temple and looting all of the precious materials that were there.
In 167 BCE, Antiochus erected an altar to the Greek god Zeus in the temple and ordered pigs to be sacrificed to Zeus on that altar. Pigs are considered a ritually unclean animal by the Jews, and this was an incredible defamation of that sacred space.
The actions by Antiochus sparked a revolt known as the Maccabean Revolt, led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons. By 165 BCE, the temple and Jerusalem had been freed from the rule of the Seleucids and it became necessary to rededicate the temple. A new altar was built, and new vessels were made for the religious ceremonies that were held there.
Hanukkah (Festival of Lights) commemorates the rededication of the temple after its liberation.
But what about the lights? When it came time to rededicate the temple there was not enough oil for the lamps to light the temple. Olive oil had to be pressed and prepared to specific criteria which would take about eight days. There was, however, only enough oil for one day. Nonetheless,that oil was put in the lamps, even though they were certain it would burn out in a day. But Day one passed, day two passed, day three - until eight days had passed and still the oil in the lamps burned, shining bright. After eight days the new oil was prepared and inserted into the lamps.
Seeing this as a miracle from God, the Jewish leaders ordered an eight-day celebration commemorating God's provision for his temple and for his people in desperate times.
In Jewish homes you will still see a Menorah (a nine-branched candlestick with candles) brought out at this time of year. While the traditions vary among Jewish groups, usually one candle is lit each night of the eight days of the celebration. The ninth candle, the shamash or helper candle, is used to light the other eight.
Hanukkah is an excellent opportunity to teach Jewish young people this part of their history. Recently, students from Congregation Beth Israel, Congregation Neveh Shalom, Congregation Shaarie Torah, Havurah Shalom and other congregations gathered to hear Rabbi Michael Cahana address the first joint high school gathering in many years.
Many feel that Hanukkah, which was for centuries a relatively minor Jewish holiday, has been raised in importance to counter the influence of the much more widely celebrated Christian holiday of Christmas. And there is probably some truth in this. But in the end the truth of Hannukah still holds: God will provide.