Hanukkah – A beacon of light

The history of the holiday

In the year 167 BCE the land of Israel was dominated by the Hellenic armies commanded by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Gradually they conquered the land up to Jerusalem, where they imposed the cult of pagan idols, spoiling the city and the Temple.

Antiochus’ actions provoked a large-scale revolt among the Jewish people. In the village of Modiin, near Jerusalem, a priest named Mattathias (Matityahu) lived with his five sons, who were skilled in war and swordsmanship.

When the Greek army approached the village, demanding that the villagers offer sacrifices to the god Zeus, the old priest and his family raised the flag of revolution. The sons of Mattathias, with Judah at the head, organized in the mountains of Judea, and after two years of intense fighting they managed to defeat the Greek army.

Judah became known as Yehuda HaMacabi (“Judah the Hammer”). Immediately after they won the battle over the Greeks, Judah and his people entered into the holy Temple where they found a heartbreaking scene — statues of pagan idols, the porches of the Temple burned and the urgent need to purify the altar of sacrifice.

According to our tradition, after entering into the Temple, the Maccabees tried vainly to find pure oil to kindle the Menorah again and purify the altar. Finally, after much search, they found a small vessel with the seal of the High Priest, ensuring that the oil was still pure and was not previously used.

The oil in this small container was only enough for one day, but a miracle occurred and the oil lasted for eight days, the time required to manufacture new oil. The holiday of Hanukkah commemorates these events, reminding us that on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the Temple was purified. Since then, Hanukkah was established as eight days of gratitude and praises to God.

The message of Hanukkah

Interestingly, the rabbinical sources about Hanukkah are very brief and only in some short passages is the holiday mentioned. However, it is well known the Talmudic phrase that says: “Ein somchim al hanes” (Shabbat 32b) — We don’t rely on miracles.

The events we celebrate in Hanukkah teach us that we should not expect a miracle to save us from danger and difficult situations in life. We shall not sit back just waiting for a radical change in a particular situation; we are required to make this transformation happen.

The Maccabees proactively acted in order to save their people, and to make the miracle of the oil happen. Today, we live in a world with many fast changes. In almost every facet of our lives, we are commonly faced with difficult moments and decisions to make.

The holiday of Hanukah reminds us that we can’t wait for a miracle to happen and save us. We have to take life in our hands, act, and keep our faith in God. In a world of uncertainties, religion is a strong beacon of light to guide and direct our lives. A little candle is enough to give warmth and illuminate a dark room.

Hanukkah is a family celebration where we gather around the burning candles to light our hearts and souls to celebrate the beauty of life. During the eight days of the holiday, the lights of the Menorah represent the expression of gratitude and their luminosity, the opportunity we all have, once a year, to fill our homes with faith and optimism.

May we all be able to increase this spiritual light, acknowledging God for the gifts we have in life.

Congregation Beth El is a conservative egalitarian synagogue, located at 1200 Fairfield Hills Road, Fairfield.