Jews throughout the world are celebrating Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, by lighting candles on a unique, eight-branched candelabra, the menorah. Each evening the middle candle from the holder, the shamash, is used to light the flames. The first night one candle is kindled. Thereafter, on each night of Hanukkah one additional candle is lit until all eight candles and the shamash brightly shine.
The holiday symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness that conveys a deep, universally understood meaning regarding the importance of religious freedom.
"Hanukkah is an affirmation that Jewish heritage is precious and is worth preserving," Rabbi Dov Fischer of the Young Israel of Orange County, Calif. told us. "We have enormous pressures on Jews to hide our identities and just assimilate and be like everybody else. Hanukkah reminds us that a core value is that we never give up that which is unique."
In the second century BCE, the Syrian-Greek Seleucid Empire conquered Israel. Beginning around 175 BCE, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes took the Seleucid throne, a period of tyranny and repression of traditional Jewish customs and practices began. The temple in Jerusalem was turned over to the worship of Zeus, which inspired a revolt, initially led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons. By 165 BCE this revolt, led by Mattathias' son Judah Maccabee, was successful.
Judah ordered the Temple cleansed of Hellenistic statuary and restored service so Jews could freely worship there once again. According to tradition, however, only one small vessel of pure olive oil, just enough to burn for one day, was available for the rededication of the temple and lighting of the menorah. It would take eight days to prepare a new supply. Miraculously this oil burned for the entire eight days.
To commemorate this miracle and their freedom from foreign occupation, Jewish sages declared an eight-day holiday to be celebrated each year. The Hanukkah menorah is intended not to light the house but "to illuminate the house within." During Hanukkah it is traditional to eat food fried in oil, such as potato pancakes, or latkes, and doughnuts. Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins) are given to children, and sometimes gifts are exchanged. Families often play a game with a four-sided spinning top, or dreidel, whose four letters are an acronym for "a great miracle happened here."
Religious freedom and the hope that light will always triumph over darkness are significant for people everywhere, and in this world these values are not always safeguarded. This Hanukkah our prayer is that individual rights are fully preserved and protected so that freedom's flame might burn brightly throughout the world.
REPRINTED FROM THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER