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December 7, 2004 > Hanukkah, Celebrating the Miracle of Faith and the Long Burning Light

Hanukkah, Celebrating the Miracle of Faith and the Long Burning Light

by Reshma Yunus

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, celebrates the victory of the Jewish people over the Greek Syrians and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple from Hellenistic Gods back to the God of Israel in 165 B. C. E. The holiday also commemorates the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days in the newly rededicated Temple. Jewish people the world over continue to commemorate this miraculous triumph of the weak over the strong and of light in the face of darkness every year on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. The date varies in the western calendar but this year Hanukkah will begin on the night of December 7 and last for eight days until December 15.

Hanukkah, which means "dedication" in Hebrew, traces its roots to the struggle for religious freedom by one Jewish family. In 167 B.C.E., the Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes began to force Jews to adopt Greek gods and practices. Things came to a head when Greek Syrian forces arrived at Modiin, the home of Mattityahu, an elder and religious leader of the well-known Hasmonean family. At Modiin, the Greek army established a religious altar and ordered Mattityahu to offer a sacrifice to a Greek God. Amy Kramer, an Israeli journalist writing for, states, "Mattityahu refused, but while he stood firm, another Jew offered to make the sacrifice. Enraged, Mattityahu killed him and attacked the Greek soldiers. His action sparked a Jewish rebellion, which he and his sons led."

Mattityahu and his sons came to be knows as the Maccabees, which in Hebrew means "Men who are as strong as hammers". The rebel forces, led by Mattityahu's son Judah Macabbee, were much smaller than the Greek army and comprised mostly of local peasants. Despite their insignificant size and weaker strength, Judah Macabee's forces proved victorious and reclaimed the Jerusalem Temple on the 25th day of Kislev.

Deborah Estreicher, a member of the Jewish community and a family literacy coordinator for the City of San Jose, noted that the Jerusalem Temple had been desecrated and smeared with the blood of pigs, considered unclean in the Jewish faith. Jewish rebel forces had to sanctify the Temple and needed to rededicate it by lighting the Menorah, a holy lamp used in the Temple services. Unfortunately, they were unable to find enough specially prepared oil to light the Menorah. Finally, in one temple chamber, the Maccabees found a single bottle of oil, which normally would have lasted only one night. Miraculously, the bottle of oil lasted eight nights, until new oil, fit for Temple use, could be produced.

According to Ms. Estreicher, Jews celebrate this event by lighting the Chanukiah (a special menorah) that has eight central candles, one candle per night for eight days. A larger candle called a Shamash, which is the ninth candle on the Chanukiah, lights the smaller candles. "During these eight days, people exchange gifts, children get money, called gelt and special foods fried in oil are prepared and eaten," she said.

Latke's (fried potato pancakes) and Sufganiot, fried jelly donuts commonly found in Israel, are also enjoyed. Adults and children play the popular dreidel game. A dreidel is a four-sided top with a letter on each side. Each letter stands for one word of the phrase, "A great miracle happened there (here)," depending on if the game is played in or outside of Israel. The four letters are: SHIN, HEY, GIMEL, NUN. This popular game is played during the holiday using pennies, nuts, raisins, or chocolate coins (gelt) as tokens or chips. One player spins the dreidel and when it stops the letter that is facing up decides the next move. If a player lands on NUN - nothing happens and the next player spins the dreidel; GIMEL - player takes all tokens in the pot; HEY - player takes half of the pot; SHIN - player must put one token into the pot.

Ellen Levine, another member of the Jewish community and a resident of Hayward, noted that Hanukkah is not really the most important of the Jewish holidays: however, as it falls so close to Christmas and New Year's day, it is celebrated extensively. Fremont Unified School District's Board Member Nina Moore agreed and added that children whose families do not celebrate Christmas can feel very left out; thus she and her family make it a point to celebrate and learn about this holiday. "It is very important for children to understand their religion and heritage and also to share this with others," she said. She makes presentations to her children's classrooms about Hanukkah and now her daughter Bridget, who is in elementary school, and her friends are doing the same.

One of Moore's fondest memories is of sharing the traditional dreidel game with her son Mathew's kindergarten class. She recalls watching children from all walks of life happily playing the Jewish game and shouting out the Hebrew words on the top. "We are fortunate to live in an ethnically diverse community where people are tolerant and accepting of other traditions and willing to be educated about different beliefs," she said. Ms. Moore noted that San Jose's police chief Rob Davis, a Mormon, who fasted with Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan this year, exemplified the openness to other cultures that is part of life here in the Bay Area.

In addition to the dreidel game, Hanukkah has other rituals, special songs and prayers which help to bond family and friends. Ms. Levine, who looks forward to trying a new latke (potato pancake) recipe every year, has relatives of different faiths, so she and her extended family get together to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Ms. Moore's family collects and displays special and unique menorahs and dreidels and often invites Jewish friends and family members as well as friends from other faith traditions to join them.

All the people we spoke to about Hanukkah emphasized that it was important to ensure that the light from the Chanukiah can be seen from the outside; thus, these are often these are placed on the window sill. The visibility of the light demonstrates, according to journalist Amy Kramer, "the triumphant symbol of the Jewish will to live and worship in freedom". In the United States, which was built on a foundation of tolerance and religious freedom, this holiday, may take on a special significance to people of all faiths.

For further information, please contact the Temple Beth Torah in Fremont at 510-656-7141.

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