At the time of the Second Temple, after the division of the empire of Alexander the Great, the Greek army of Antiochus Epiphanes invaded the land of Israel. The Greeks persecuted the Jews by forbidding them under pain of death the study of Torah and the practice of Mitzvot. The Temple of Jerusalem, the Beth Hamikdash, was ransacked and desecrated.
Courageous Cohanim, the Chashmonaim, did not resign themselves and rebelled against the invader.
Lead by Matitiahu, then by his sons, and driven by absolute trust in Gd, they ended up winning a miraculous victory over the powerful Greek army on the 25th of the month of Kislev.
This first miracle was followed by a second: when the Temple was inaugurated after the victory, there was no more pure oil to light the Menorah, the seven-branched candelabra, and eight days were needed making a new oil.
The Cohanim searched the Temple from top to bottom and found only a small vial of oil, the contents of which could only be used to light the Menorah for one day. Despite everything, they decided to light the Menorah and that's when the second miracle happened: the oil burned for eight days.
It is to thank Hashem for the blessings and miracles He has bestowed upon us that the Sages instituted the feast of Chanukah.
The name of the holiday has a double meaning: 'Hanukkah means "inauguration" in Hebrew, but can also be broken down into "Chanu" followed by the letters Kaf and Hey, which together have a value of 25. This recalls the miracle of victory over the Greeks, when the Jews rested (“chanou”, “they encamped”) on the 25th (“kaf hey”) of the month of Kislev.
The Sages of the Talmud have taught that the light of this holiday will continue to shine upon the Jewish People until the coming of Moshiach and even beyond!
Under Syrian ruleMore than 2,000 years ago, the land of Israel belonged to the Syrian Empire and was ruled by Syrian rulers of the Seleucid dynasty. To tell the story leading up to Chanukah, let's start with Antiochus III, the king of Syria, who reigned from 3538 to 3574 (222-186 BCE). He had fought a war against the king of Egypt Ptolemy, for the possession of the land of Israel.
Antiochus III emerged victorious and the land of Israel was annexed to his empire. At the beginning of his reign, he was favorably disposed towards the Jews and granted them certain privileges. Later, however, when he was defeated by the Romans and forced to pay them heavy taxes, the burden fell on the various peoples of his empire who had the obligation to provide the solid gold required by the Romans. When Antiochus died, his son Seleucus IV succeeded him and further oppressed the Jews.
Besides the troubles that came from without, serious perils threatened Judaism from within. The influence of the Hellenists (who accepted idolatry and the Syrian way of life) continued to grow. Yochanane, the High Priest sensed the danger that threatened Judaism before the penetration of Greco-Syrian influence in the Holy Land. For, unlike the ideal of physical beauty that was that of the Greeks and Syrians, Judaism emphasizes truth and moral purity, as Gd commands in the Torah. The Jewish people could not give up their faith in Gd and accept the idolatry of the Syrians.
This is why Yochanan opposed any attempt by Jewish Hellenists to introduce Greek and Syrian customs into the land of Israel. The Hellenists hated him. One of them reported to the King's commissioner that in the treasury of the Temple was an immense fortune.
The wealth of treasury consisted of the contribution of half a Shekel given annually by all adult Jews. This donation was to be used for the sacrifices on the altar and for the upkeep and improvement of the Temple building. Another part of the treasury was the funds for orphans deposited for them until they reached the age to use it. Seleucus needed money to pay the Romans. He sent his minister Helyodros to seize the money from the Temple treasury. In vain, Yochanan, the High Priest, he begged. Helyodros did not listen to him and entered the precincts of the Temple. But suddenly, he turns pale with terror. Within a minute, he passed out on the floor. After he came to, Helyodros dared not enter the Temple again.
Antiochus the "mad"
Soon after, Seleucus was assassinated and his brother Antiochus IV began his reign over Syria (in 3586, 174 BCE). He was a tyrant of a thoughtless and impulsive nature, despising religion and the feelings of others. He was called "Epiphanes", which means "loved by the gods". Several Syrian rulers were given similar titles, but a historian of his time, Polebius, gave him the epithet Epimanes, "the madman", a title more appropriate to the character of this harsh and cruel king.
Wishing to unify his kingdom through a common culture and religion, Antiochus attempted to root out Jewish individualism by abolishing all Jewish laws. He removed the righteous High Priest Yochanan from his duties in the Temple of Jerusalem and installed in his place his brother Jehochouah who liked to be called by his Greek name Jason. He was a Hellenist who used his new office to disseminate more and more Greek customs among the members of the priesthood. Jehochouah or Jason was later replaced by another man, Menelaus, who had promised the king that he would bring him more money than Jason did. When Yochanan protested the spread of Greek influence in the Holy Temple, the incumbent High Priest hired men to assassinate him.
At this time, Antiochus was engaged in a successful war against Egypt. But messengers from Rome arrived and ordered him to stop the war. He was forced to submit. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the rumor spread that Antiochus had suffered a serious accident. Believing him dead, the people revolted against Menelaus. The traitorous High Priest fled with his friends.
Antiochus returned from Egypt enraged by Roman interference in his ambitious plans. When he learned what had taken place in Jerusalem, he ordered his army to rage against the Jews. Thousands of them were killed. Then Antiochus issued a series of terrible decrees against them. The practice of their religion was henceforth forbidden to them, the scrolls of the Torah were confiscated and burned. Shabbat rest, circumcision, and dietary laws were prohibited on pain of death. One of the veteran and most respected members of this generation, Rabbi Eliezer, a ninety year old man was forced by the servants of Antiochus to eat pork to induce others to do the same. When he refused, they suggested that he put this meat to his lips to pretend to consume it. But of course, Rabbi Eliezer refused and he was put to death. There were thousands of men who similarly sacrificed their lives. The famous story of Channa and her seven sons took place at this time. Antiochus' men went from town to town, village to village, forcing the inhabitants to serve pagan gods. There remained only one region where the resistance held out: the Judean hills with their many caves.But even there the Syrians pursued the faithful Jews and many of them died as martyrs
One day, the men-at-arms of Antiochus arrived at the village of Modiine where Mattityahu, the old priest lived. The Syrian officer built an altar in the marketplace and demanded that Mattityahu offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. Mattityahu replied, "I, my sons and my brothers are determined to remain loyal to the covenant that our G‑d made with our ancestors!" »
At this moment, a Hellenistic Jew approached the altar to offer a sacrifice. Mattityahu seized his sword, killed him and his sons and attacked the Syrian officers and soldiers. They killed many and chased away the rest. And then they destroyed the altar.
Mattityahu knew Antiochus would be beside himself when he heard what had happened. He would most certainly send a punitive expedition. He therefore left the village of Modiine. He fled with his sons and friends and took refuge in the hills of Judea.
All loyal and courageous Jews joined them. They formed legions and from time to time they left their hiding places to attack enemy detachments and garrisons and to destroy the pagan altars built under the command of Antiochus.
Sensing his end near, Mattityahu called his sons and urged them to keep fighting to defend G‑d's Torah. He asked them to follow the advice of their brother Simon the Wise. For their welfare, he told them, their ruler should be Judah the Strong. Yehudah was called "Maccabee", a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words: "Mi Kamocha Baelim Hashem": Who is like You among the mighty, O Gd.
Antiochus sent his general Apolonius to crush Yehudah and his people, the Maccabees. Although larger in number and equipment than their adversaries, the Syrians were defeated by the Maccabees. Antiochus sent another expedition which suffered the same fate. He then realized that only by sending a mighty army could he hope to defeat Yehuda and his brave fighters. An army of over 40,000 men swept across the country led by two generals, Nicanor and Gorgiach. When Yehuda and his brothers heard this news, they exclaimed: "Let us fight until death to defend our soul and our Temple!" The people assembled at Mitzpah where Samuel the Prophet had in the past offered his prayers to Gd. After a series of hard fights, victory was won.
The Maccabees then marched to Jerusalem to liberate it. They entered the Temple and purified it of all the idols placed by the Syrian vandals. Yehuda and his men built a new altar which Yehuda inaugurated on 25 Kislev in the year 3622.
Since the Golden Candelabra had been stolen by the Syrians, the Maccabees made a new one in a less rich metal. When they wanted to light it, they found only a small jug of pure olive oil, bearing the seal of High Priest Yochanane. This small vial would only suffice for the lighting of a single day. But by G‑d's miracle, it continued to burn for eight days, until new oil could be made. This miracle proved that G‑d had once again taken His people under His protection. It is in remembrance of these events that our Sages designated these eight days for us to annually commemorate and light the lights of Chanukah.
All family members must be present when lighting the Chanukah candles.
Chanukah lights are lit with the flame of the Chamash instead of a match.
On the first evening of Chanukah, blessings are said and a flame is lit at the right end of the Menorah
Each of the following nights, a candle is added to the left of those previously lit. The new candle is lit first, followed by the one immediately to its right and so on. This pattern is repeated every day until, on the eighth night, all eight candles burn together.
The lights are turned on at sunset or at nightfall, depending on your custom. In any case, the candles should continue to burn for a full half hour after dark. For this purpose, we will therefore take care to put enough oil in the cups (or to provide sufficiently large spark plugs). After lighting, we recite “Hanerot Halalou”.
On Friday afternoon, the Chanukah lights are lit before the Shabbat candles. From the lighting of these until the end of Shabbat (and the recitation of Havdalah), the Menorah should not be re-ignited, moved or prepared. After Havdalah, lights are turned on for Saturday night.
Some Chanukah customs
It is customary on Chanukah to give children Dmei Chanukah (in Hebrew) or Chanukah Gelt (in Yiddish), some pocket money. This tradition greatly increases the children's joy and their participation in the holiday spirit. In addition, it provides an opportunity to encourage children to always improve (in hard work, in good deeds, etc.). It is also an opportunity for them to practice the collection of Maaser, the tenth that is given to tzedakah (charity).
The spinning top
The Greeks made the study of Torah a crime punishable by death. But the Jewish children continued to study in secret and, as the Greek patrols approached, pretended to play spinning tops. On each of the four facets of the Chanukah spinning top is inscribed a Hebrew letter: Nun, Gimel, Hey, China. These letters refer to the phrase “Ness Gadol Haya Cham – A great miracle has happened there. The spinning top is still at the center of the Chanukah games today.
To commemorate the miracle that happened with oil, it is customary to eat food fried in oil. The great standards are “Latkes” (potato fritters) and “Soufganiot” (Israeli fritters). Dairy dishes, such as Cheese Latkes, are also eaten in remembrance of Yehudit's heroic deeds.
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