Hanukkah, annual Jewish celebration of triumph, mystery enters 6th day

| Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, 4:07 a.m.

The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, which commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the victory over the Syrian-Greeks around 164 B.C.E., entered its sixth day on Thursday.

The eight-day remembrance began Saturday, the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar.

Rabbi Moshe Russell of the Gemilas Chesed Synagogue in White Oak said Hanukkah, also known as Chanukah, is a celebration of religious freedom, military victory, and the mystery of how a small portion of ceremonial olive oil unexpectedly lasted for eight days.

“What that showed was, even during a time of struggles, God was still with them,” Russell said. “That was a sort of hidden miracle showing God's caring for the Jewish people even at the time of troubles.”

Antiochus was a Syrian king who ruled over the Jews living in Judea. He wanted all of the groups in his domain to be Hellenized — to adopt Greek culture. But the Jews resisted. The Syrian-Greeks desecrated the Jewish Temple and a 25-year war ensued.

Russell said there is some debate about the timeline of the war and Antiochus' rule, but most historians agreed that the year 164 B.C.E. was when the Temple candles were relighted.

The Jews who fought back were followers of Judah Maccabee. They emerged victorious and had an eight-day celebration.

Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, is often called the “Festival of Lights.”

One of the oldest and most recognizable symbols of the Jewish faith is the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum used in the temple. The nine-branched menorah is used on Hanukkah.

It is lit at sunset, before services, on each day of Hanukkah. One of the branches is raised above the others, and is reserved for the Shamash, or servant candle.

Russell said the Shamash is used to light the other candles on the menorah, traditionally lit from left to right, with the newest candle lit first.

The lighting of the Menorah, and Hanukkah celebrations in general, are not as prevalent or as commercial as Christmas.

“It depends on what area you are in,” Russell said. “If you're in the New York area or Israel, you'll see it a lot. Around here there's not that many Jewish people, so you won't see it that much.”

Russell said a group of Jews called the Chabad, led by the late Rabbi Manechem Mendel Schneerson, tried to promote Hanukkah through public menorah ceremonies with government officials, and with electronic menorahs in their cars.

Russell said tradition dictates menorahs are lit in synagogues and homes to honor the commitment, but there is nothing wrong with spreading the word about Hanukkah as Chabad did.

“They're not fulfilling their commandment of putting it on top of their car,” Russell said. “It's a nice thing to do. There's certain guidelines that the rabbis have instituted of how to do something. If you follow the rules, usually you're safe. There's a right way of doing things.”

Fried foods also are part of Hanukkah tradition, such as potato pancakes called latkes, doughnuts known as sufganiyot, and fried honey puffs called loukoumades.

Russell said Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah, and is not a biblical holiday, as are Passover, Shavu'ot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

“It's celebrated across the spectrum. Even not-so-observant Jews sort of connect to it, for some reason,” Russell said.

No work restrictions are associated with Hanukkah, as they are with other holidays and the Sabbath.

“Other than praise and thanksgiving and having a meal and singing praise to the Lord, there's no other things to it,” Russell said.

Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965, or mdivittorio@tribweb.com.

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