In 168 BCE, the Jewish practices in Jerusalem were being prohibited by Hellenist oppressors who imposed edicts on the Jewish people that radically deviated from firmly held beliefs. For example, one edict required that the Jews sacrifice a pig to the god of Zeus, a practice that would deviate from the views of even the most reform of Jewish people during the time. According to University of Calgary professor Eliezer Segal, author of the textbook Introducing Judaism, these oppressors “provoked what was probably the first known war to be fought in the name of religious liberty.”
A small Jewish “guerilla army” formed in order to take back their Temple in Jerusalem and defeat the Hellenist militarily. Their successful campaign resulted in the purification and rededication of the Temple that was sullied by their oppressors. Hanukkah aims to memorialize this tremendous feat by the Jewish people.
Anyone remotely familiar with the popular Jewish holiday is most likely aware of the menorah, “an eight-branched candelabrum.” Immediately following the rededication of the Temple, the Jewish people miraculously lit the candelabrum for a remarkable eight days, using only one day’s worth of oil. This miracle is remembered on Hanukkah by lighting one candle a night for each of the eight days of the holiday.
The miracle of that oil is also remembered by enjoying a set of tasty treats cooked in oil, especially popular during Hanukkah. The most popular are latkes, or potato pancakes, and sufganiyyot, also simply known as jelly doughnuts.
Like many holidays with ancient origins, Hanukkah has picked up many traditions that really have nothing to do with victory over their oppressors or the celebration of the miracle of their long-lasting oil. For example, eight days of gift-giving, which overwhelms the holiday celebration in America (though, according to Segal, is less experienced in Canada and virtually nonexistent to Jews of Israel), really is only modestly experienced after the 19th century as an “East European custom of giving small gifts of coins known in Yiddish as “Hanukkah gelt.”
Similarly, the concept of the dreidel, the four-sided top that is now a popular toy during the holiday, was never associated with Hanukkah. As Segal points out, the dreidel was actually used to gamble in medieval Germany—an activity that, while frowned upon, was “permitted in the more permissive atmosphere of the holiday.”
Keep the Memory
Hanukkah suffers, to some extent, as the victim of massive commercialization, primarily in the United States, but in some cases, in Canada as well. While it has become important for younger Jewish people to enjoy the superficial aspect of the holiday in the form of jelly doughnuts and gifts, it is even more important to remember the extraordinary dedication of our Jewish ancestors who fought to keep Judaism from being sullied by those who sought to oppress them.
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