Chanukah, also called the Festival of Lights, and Feast of Dedication, is observed for eight days, beginning on the evening of the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev. Chanukah is a wonderful holiday of renewed dedication, faith, hope and spiritual light. It's a holiday that says: "Never lose hope." Chanukah commemorates the victory, through the miracles of HaShem (God), of a small band of Maccabees over the pagan Syrian-Greeks who ruled over Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel).
WHAT DOES "CHANUKAH" MEAN?
Chanukahhas two meanings. First, and foremost, it means "dedication" because it was on Chanukah that the Bait Hamikdash (Holy Temple) was purified and rededicated to the service of Hashem, in 165 BCE, after many years of pagan defilement. ("BCE" means "before common era.") The other meaning gives us an easy way to remember the Hebrew date of the holiday: "Chanu" means "they rested", and "Kah" (composed of the Hebrew letters for 25 - "Chof and Hay") means "on the twenty fifth" (day of Kislev).
Chanukahis also called "The Festival of Lights" referring to the flames kindled on each night. Chanukah is also called "The Festival of Light." It is the victory of the forces of "light" - which include faith and loyalty to Hashem and the Jewish tradition and the will to fight for these beliefs - over the forces of "darkness," represented by the hedonistic lifestyle of the ancient Syrian-Greeks.
THE MIRACLE(S) OFCHANUKAH
The year was about 165 BCE. A large group of men led by Judah the Maccabee climbed to the top of a mountain overlooking Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). It was the same mountain from which, many centuries later, the Crusaders would launch their attack against the Moslems and from which, the Jordanian artillery would shell Jerusalem in 1967. In 165 BCE, however, Judah and his men, with the help of HaShem, were about to complete a great victory, a triumph that lives on as the miracle of Chanukah.
The story of Chanukah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of the Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs, the dress, etc.
After the death of Alexander the Great, his Empire was divided among his generals. Israel - the Kingdom of Judea - was added to the Empire of Antiochus III, King of Syria. When Antiochus IV Epiphanies became king of the Syrian-Greeks, he was not content to accept the taxes and loyalty of the Jews as his predecessors had done. He wanted the Jews to lay aside their Torah and ancient religion, and, in their place, substitute the Hellenistic Greek culture and Grecian idols.
King Antiochus IV bore down on his Jewish subjects with a measure of ruthlessness, stubbornness and cruelty that earned him the nickname Antiochus the Madman. He defiled the Temple - filling it with pagan idols, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, and requiring the sacrifice of pigs on the altar. He forbade the Jews to observe the commandments of Brit Milah (circumcision), Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon), the Sabbath, and barred the reading of the Torah.
Jews who dared to remain loyal to their faith were brutally tortured and murdered. If a woman had her infant circumcised, she was murdered, the baby publicly hanged, and all who participated in the circumcision ceremony were executed and their property confiscated. Against this backdrop, Jewish resistance began to weaken and it seemed inevitable that the last remnants of resistance would soon be wiped out.
Then, one courageous old man turned the tide. His name was Mattityahu (Matthew or Matthias) and he was a Kohen - head of the Hasmonean family, (the high priestly family), from the Judean town of Modi'in near Lod. The Syrian-Greek governor of Matthews region set up an idol in Modi'in, rounded up the townspeople, and introduced an "enlightened" Jew who would sacrifice a pig on the idol in recognition of the decree of Antiochus. Old Matthew stepped forward and slew the traitor.
With the rallying cry of, "Mi LaHashem Ay-li" (Whoever is for Hashem, let him come to me), he called the people to rebellion. A pitifully small number responded at first - the people were numb with fear and hopelessness - but Matthews five sons led the way. They fought the Syrian-Greeks, retreated to the mountains, and began a guerrilla war against the Syrian-Greeks and their Jewish allies. Matthew had not long to live, but on his deathbed he charged his sons to carry on the struggle.
The glorious brothers heeded his command. He passed on the leadership to his second son, Judah the Maccabee, who was a mighty warrior and a charismatic leader.
Many miracles happened. Outnumbered a hundred to one, Judah and his men won many battles. Jews came to join him. In a few years, he had defeated the mightiest armies of Syria. Victory belonged to the Jew, the pure, the righteous, the loyal defender of the Torah. Following the rebellion, the kingdom of Israel was restored for 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.
So it was that Judah and his men climbed the mountain above Jerusalem and saw that there was no resistance. On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, they marched into the Holy City and immediately made their way to the Temple, where they saw a sight that left them shocked and angered. Idols, filth, impurity were everywhere. They immediately began the process of cleansing and purifying the Temple along with rebuilding the altar, as the old one had been desecrated.
WHY EIGHT DAYS?
In honor of the cleansing of the Temple and its dedication, the Jews celebrated Sukkot, an eight-day festival that normally occurs earlier, in the month of Tishri. The next year they celebrated Sukkot at the correct time and kept the twenty-fifth of Kislev (Chanukah) as the beginning of a new eight-day festival to mark the victory HaShem gave them.
IS CHANUKAH IN THE SCRIPTURES?
Yes! But not in the Tenakh, where you might expect to find it. In fact, the only book dedicated to the events of Chanukah is the book of Macabees, which is not included in the Scriptures. However, there is one mention of Chanukah in the Besorah of Yochannan, chapter 10, verse 22 (The Good News or "Gospel" according to John). Here we see Yeshua celebrating the Feast of Dedication (Chanukah) with his Talmidim (disciples) in Jerusalem.
The actions of Judah the Maccabee and his men preserved the existence of the Jewish people. Antiochus IV had full intention to do away with the Jews either through assimilation or death. Without the Jews and the Temple, there could be no Messiah no once and for all Yom Kippur sacrifice for our salvation. In this regard, Chanukah shares a similar significance to the spring feast of Purim, which celebrates the story of how Esther and Mordecai thwarted Hamans plans to do away with the Jewish people.
The Menorah or Hanukkiah in Hebrew, that we use today, is a nine-branch candelabrum. On each night one more candle is added and lit, beginning with one candle on the first night of Chanukah and ending with the eighth on the final evening. The ninth branch is reserved for the shamesh, the servant light, which is lit first and used to kindle the other lights of the hanukkiah. The best time to light the Chanukah candles is at nightfall. The whole family and guests should be present. Young children should also be encouraged to light the candles. If someone can't be home by nightfall, we may light as long as people are still up and about - either at home or out of doors.
On Friday afternoon, the Chanukah lights (which will burn until 1/2 hour after nightfall) are kindled before the Shabbat candles are lit. Saturday night, after Shabbat ends, the Chanukah lights for Saturday night are lit. The generally accepted custom is to place the hanukkiah at a window so that it can be seen from the street. This is because we are required to proclaim the miracle publicly by means of the lights. Or, the hanukkiah may be placed on the left side of a doorway opposite the mezuzah on the right side, so that we may be surrounded by mitzvot (commandments) as we light the hanukkiah.
The lights must burn for at least half an hour into the night, during which time no use may be made of the light. The standard small colored hanukkiah candles will burn long enough, but - a word of caution - during the last few days of Chanukah when many candles are lit, if the family hanukkiot are too close together, the intense heat will cause the candies to burn down in less time. On the first night of Chanukah, three Brachot (blessings) are said. The third and last one, Shehechiyanu, is omitted all the other nights of Chanukah. The candles are lit after completion of the blessing. The first days candle is placed at the far right side of the hanukkiah. On each succeeding day, an additional candle is placed to the previous night's candle's left. The lighting is done from left to right, in other words, the new candle of each night is lit first. Light the shamesh candle first. Then use the shamesh to light the remaining candles from left to right.
HANEIROT HALOLU(THESE LIGHTS)
After kindling the first candle (and on the second and later nights) while the others are being lit, this simple prayer is recited. It declares that we kindle these lights in memory of the miracles HaShem performed "in those days at this season," through the brave priestly family of Matthew. It concludes by declaring that all through the eight days of Chanukah, the lights are holy - and are not to be used as a light source; only to be seen as an expression of gratitude and praise to HaShem for his miracles.
MAOZ TZUR- A SONG OF HOPE AND COURAGE
Maoz Tzuris the universal song of Chanukah. It traces eras of oppression - Egypt, Babylon, Haman, the Syrian-Greeks, the nineteen centuries since the Second Temple was destroyed and praises HaShem for redeeming Bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel) after each of them. A song of hope, it fills Jews with the courage to face the future and stresses the desire to a return of Temple and the coming of Moshiach (Messiah), Bimheira Beyomainu, (May it happen speedily in our days), Amen.
Al Hanissimis a passage that is added on the days of Chanukah and Purim to the Bircat Hamazon (Grace after Meals) and Shmone Esrei (the Amidah - Silent Prayer) for morning, afternoon, and evening. It starts by expressing thanks to Hashem for the miracles of Chanukah and Purim. Then follows a section that is said on each specific holiday with details of the respective miracle that occurred on that holiday.
During the eight days of Chanukah, the entire Hallel (Psalms of praise taken from the Psalms of David), is recited every day in the Shacharit (morning) prayers. In addition, there is a special reading from the Torah Scroll each morning in the synagogue. The readings recall the offerings of the Nessi'im (Princes), heads of the Tribes of the Children of Israel during the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
WHO HAS A SPECIAL STAKE INCHANUKAH?
Women! It is customary that women do no housework for the first half hour that the Chanukah lights are burning. Why? First of all because the Syrian-Greeks mistreated Jewish women systematically through their vicious laws. Secondly, because a major figure in the victory was a Jewish woman named Judith. She won the confidence of the Syrian-Greek general Halifornus. Then, after making him sleepy with wine and cheese, she decapitated him. When she hung his head out the window, the Syrian-Greek army was demoralized and the Jewish victory was greatly facilitated.
The Syrian-Greeks decreed that the teaching or studying of Torah was a crime punishable by death or imprisonment. But the children defiantly studied in secret; and when Syrian-Greek patrols were spotted, they would pretend to be playing an innocent game of dreidel.
The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top, also called a "s'vivon," in Hebrew. It is traditionally used to play a lively Chanukah game. The dreidel has on its four sides, letters that tell the Chanukah message: a great miracle happened there - as if to say, "Play children, enjoy your beautiful gifts and your even more beautiful holiday. But remember, HaShem, our Creator, gave us the dreidel, as a miracle and we will show our gratitude with renewed dedication to Him.
"In Israel, the dreidel bears the letters Nun, Gimel, Hay, and Pay standing for "Nes Gadol Hayah Po", a great miracle happened here. In the diaspora, (around the world), however, the dreidel says the letters Nun, Gimel Hay, and Shin meaning "Nes Gadol Hayah Shom", a great miracle happened. So even the dreidel is no idle toy. As it spins, it delivers a message.
HOW TO PLAY DREIDEL
Each player places some dollars, quarters, dimes, or would you believe pennies, candies, raisins, or nuts into a kitty, and each player takes a turn spinning the dreidel.
"Nun" means nothing, you win nothing, you lose nothing.
"Gimel" means you take the whole kitty.
"Hay" means you win half of what's in the kitty.
"Shin" (or in Israel - "Pay") means "put in" - you lose, and must put one ... more into the kitty.
On Chanukah, it is traditional to give all children Chanukah gelt (money) and/or presents. Of course, this beautiful custom adds to the children's happiness and festive spirit. In addition, it affords parents an opportunity to give children positive reinforcement for exemplary behavior, such as diligence in their studies, and acts of charity.