If you walk into a Jewish home, chances are it won’t be too long before you spot a menorah sitting on a shelf, quietly awaiting the holiday where it will be taken down, dusted off and displayed for the eight nights of Hanukkah.
This week-long celebration, known as the Festival of Lights, takes place this year from Dec. 10 through Dec. 18 (these dates change from year to year because the Jewish calendar follows an ancient lunar cycle separate from the commonplace Gregorian calendar). Hanukkah is not one of Judaism’s major festivals, but it has become a peer to Christmas, another holiday known for illuminating a dark season.
Historically, Hanukkah commemorates the time a rebel group of Jews, known as the Maccabees, led a revolt and defended themselves against the Syrian-Greeks, who forced the Jews from their holy temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd Century BCE. This temple – the holiest place for Jews at the time – was desecrated and Jewish rituals forbidden; Jews were told they must celebrate the Greek gods or face death. And so the Maccabees fought back, successfully reclaiming the holy temple, which was rededicated. In fact, “Hanukkah” means “dedication” in Hebrew, and the modern 8-day celebration is considered a festival of rededication.
Over time, this story of the Maccabean revolt evolved into legend, and with that came the substory of how, when the Maccabees reclaimed the holy temple, they found enough oil to burn for only one night, but it inexplicably burned for eight nights. With this, a heroic revolt became a story of miraculous light, of resilience illuminated.
In modern times, this miracle is remembered through the lighting of the eight candles on the menorah, with one candle lit the first night, two the second night, three the third night and so on until the eighth night, when all the candles are lit and the flames burn brightest. It’s also common to make latkes, or potato pancakes, as these are fried in lots and lots of oil (if you walk into any Jewish home when latkes are being made, you’ll likely leave smelling a bit like oil, too).
This December, for many Jews, myself included, the symbolic importance of Hanukkah is taking on extra meaning in a year that has seemed especially dark.
“The themes of Hanukkah really resonate this year,” said Amy Olson, executive director of the University of Rhode Island Hillel, which serves as the Jewish student center on campus. “We light the candles to bring light into dark days,” she said.
In talking about the history of lighting the menorah, Olson recalled that Rabbi Hillel, the famous rabbi for whom the Jewish center is named, is thought to have said: “You should always increase the light that you have.” Hence lighting one candle the first night, then two the second, and so on.
“This is particularly relevant this year,” Olson said, noting that it’s customary to display the menorah in a window, sharing the light with passerby. “These days, when we’re shut up in our houses, it’s a way of connecting with people,” she explained.
Olson attributes the evolution of the story of Hanukkah to ancient rabbis wanting to emphasize a story of spiritual victory over one of military victory.
“They probably made up the story about eight days of light,” Olson said, speculating that the miracle of enough oil for one night lasting for eight might have been developed as a metaphor for God’s miracles. The lasting story, the one at the center of the holiday that has been celebrated for generations, is one of resilience, of pride, of keeping tradition and of “not letting others quash them,” she said.
Daniel Berkman, a resident of Kingston, considers Hanukkah “a religiously minor festival holiday, but one that has special significance for two reasons.”
“First, in the northern hemisphere, it coincides with winter and other traditions of bringing back the light, like solstice celebrations,” he said. “And during Hanukkah, we rekindle the light, rekindle the hope.”
Secondly, in the United States, Berkman believes the holiday has evolved to match the festivities of Christmas. Still, Hanukkah has “always meant a lot,” he said. “It was always a major family gathering that was never skipped.” And now, as the father of a young daughter, he is passing those traditions on to her.
As for the story of the Maccabees and the oil, Berkman described the tale as “a story of hope, a story of Jews in a dark time with the odds stacked against them.”
“It does mean a lot to think of Jews standing up to religious oppression and the major, dominant empire that had come to conquer them,” he said. “In the face of catastrophe we are remembering a victory against a regime that came to erase us. It’s a story of perseverance… and the triumph of a small group of dedicated people.”
“It’s certainly something to draw inspiration from in current times,” he added, noting that when the odds are stacked against you, there’s still a way forward.
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