Hanukkah is many Jews’ favorite holiday and with good reason. Its rituals are beautiful, complete with a shining candelabra (menorah) in the window, the rich smell of latkes or jelly donuts frying in oil, and the modern custom of giving gifts to friends and loved ones.
It’s a holiday for the home, rather than for the synagogue—an opportunity to fill our houses with friends and family and to share in good times together. Its message is one of liberation and hope. We recall the miracles of our past and remind ourselves that light will always conquer darkness.
The story of Hanukkah begins in 167 BCE, in the land of Israel. Antiochus, the Syrian-Greek governor of the region, issued an order outlawing Jewish practice and commanding that pagan sacrifices be offered in the Temple.
A small band of resistance fighters, known by the name of Maccabees, led a three year uprising, which successfully defeated the Syrian-Greeks and restored Jewish sovereignty and self-determination. In the aftermath of the rebellion, the Jews held a spontaneous eight day celebration of freedom in the restored Temple, which we continue to mark to this day.
An additional reason for the eight days of Hanukkah comes from the Talmud, the major collection of Jewish wisdom, law and tradition from the first five centuries of the Common Era. The Talmud records that when the Maccabees entered the Temple to restore it, they were only able to find one small vessel of pure oil to relight the sacred, eternal lamp.
Miraculously, that small amount of oil burned for eight days - long enough to prepare more pure oil. This story reminds us that Hanukkah is about all kinds of miracles: from the very large, like a military victory against impossible odds, to the very small, like a tiny flame that refuses to burn out.
The most important ritual of Hanukkah is the lighting of the menorah. Each night we add candles, lighting one the first night, two on the second and so on—until the final night when eight little flames shine in our windows. Aside from their beauty, these lights serve the role of pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracle to the broader world.
Our menorahs burn today to spread the hopeful message that miracles are possible and that darkness can be overcome through persistence and faith. In a world with so much suffering and strife, could there be any more important message than that?
Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the Revson Rabbinic Fellow of IKAR, a Jewish community in West Los Angeles, dedicated to the intersection of spirituality and social justice. For more information, please visit: www.ikar-la.org.