December 11, 2000
Chanukah: the festival of light
by Deborah Stone
Holidays are a time to remember and cherish family traditions, as well as a time to think about the spiritual messages they evoke.
The Jewish festival of Chanukah, which begins on the evening of the Dec. 21, holds meaning for Jews everywhere and is not simply a time for fun and merriment.
The story of Chanukah celebrates the Jewish people's struggle for religious freedom in a time of oppression and emphasizes the message that a few can overcome the many. This holiday honors the spirit of free thought and affirms the Jewish identity.
In the time of King Antiochus of Syria, Jews were not allowed to freely worship one God. Instead, the dictate was to bow down to the many idols of the Greek religion or suffer persecution.
A small band of Jewish settlers headed by Judah the Maccabbee, son of Mattathias, refused to tolerate this oppression and rose up to fight against the Syrian army in the hills outside of Jerusalem.
Against all odds, the Jews managed to gain victory over the Syrian soldiers. When they returned to their Temple in Jerusalem, however, they found it in ruins.
After cleaning and restoring this holy place, Judah called the people together to re-dedicate it. The menorah, the instrument of holy light, needed to be re-lit, but only one small jar of oil could be found and it would take eight days to get more oil.
The decision was to light the menorah, even if the light would only last for one day. When the people returned the next day, they saw that the oil was still burning.
Miraculously, it continued to burn for eight days until more oil could be brought to the Temple.
Chanukah has become the festival of light, celebrated at the darkest time of the year. The light is a symbol of spiritual freedom and reminds Jews everywhere that even today, this freedom is fragile.
In celebration of this holiday, people eat special foods cooked in oil. Potato latkes, a type of potato pancake, served with such condiments as applesauce, sour cream, jam or powdered sugar, are popular and many families have their own recipes for this culinary delight.
Children play games of chance using a dreidel, which is a four-sided top printed with Hebrew letters. Translated, these letters mean "A Great Miracle Happened Here."
Each of the letters indicates an action that the spinner needs to take with regards to the tokens in the pot. When one person wins everything in the pot, the game is over.
The menorah is kindled at sundown on each of the eight nights and blessings of joy and thanks are chanted at this time.
There are a total of nine candles, one for each of the eight nights, and an additional candle called the Shamash or helper candle.The Shamash is lit first and then it in turn lights the other candles from right to left.
Families create their own cherished traditions to celebrate Chanukah and these are often passed down over the years.
The story behind this holiday and its spiritual messages also continue to be shared, as their importance never diminishes.