Today (Thursday, Dec 7) the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah begins at sundown, and runs for eight days and nights (until Dec 15). It usually takes place in December, at the time of year when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere. The story of Hanukkah appears in the Apocrypha, which includes documents from the Second Temple period, specifically in First and Second Maccabees (the Apocrypha is made up of what are considered non-canonical books).
Also called the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by the Syrian Greeks. Antiochus Epiphanes (168 B.C.), who was king at Antioch, had forbidden the keeping of the laws of Moses. He defiled the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing swine to idols and commanded the books of the Law to be burned. Sad Psalms were sung in those days, some of them perhaps for the first time, (like Psalms 74 and 79), and it seemed as if the nation and religion of the Jews would be destroyed. But, in fact, this persecution instead served to awaken the Jews to defend their faith.
A brave priest Mattathias, who lived a few miles northwest of Jerusalem, refused to offer sacrifices to idols, and killed the officer of the king who brought the command. It was the beginning of a great revolt against the Greeks and a return to strict obedience to the law of Moses. Judas Maccabaeus, a son of Mattathias, was nicknamed "the hammerer" and became the leader. His little band grew to an army, and he gained one splendid victory after another over much larger armies which the Greeks sent against him.
Judas, remembering how the Lord had helped His people in the old days, had a renewed faith and great courage that inspired new life into the Jews. After three great victories, Judas and his men cleansed the temple and built a new altar in place of the one that had been defiled. They re-dedicated it to the worship of the Lord on the fifteenth day of the ninth month, which was in the early winter; and commanded that a feast of eight days should be kept each year at this season in memory of the dedication. (1 Mac. 4:36-59; 2 Mac. 10:1-9)
Much later rabbinic tradition ascribed the length of the festival to a miraculous small amount of oil that burned for the eight days of that first festival.
While Hanukkah is actually a quite minor festival, it has become one of the most beloved of Jewish holidays. Like Passover, Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates the liberation from oppression. Representing an act of defiance against those in the past and in the present who would root out Jewish practice, the observance of Hanukkah has assumed a visible community aspect. In spite of the human action that is commemorated, never far from the surface is the theology that the liberation was possible only thanks to the miraculous support of the Divine.
We display the 9-branched Hanukkah menorah in honor of this Jewish tradition. The center candle is called the shamash (i.e., “helper” or “servant”) and is used to light the other eight candles that symbolize the eight nights of the holiday. On each night, one more candle is lit than the previous night, until on the final night all eight branches are ignited.
Let us hold the Jewish people in our hearts and minds, especially during these physically and spiritually challenging times, seeing them rising into their fullest expression of faith and shalom.