Chanukah Isn’t The Jewish Name For Christmas by Ira Jay Rosen

Posted on December 20, 2008


Ira Jay Rosen
Brooklyn, New York

Chanukah Isn’t The Jewish Name For Christmas

Because Chanukah is usually celebrated in December, many non-Jewish Americans think that there must be a relationship between Chanukah and Christmas.
Nothing can be further from the truth!

The story of Chanukah is much older than the story of Christmas. It is a story of the bravery of ordinary people in the face of impossible odds, and of the courage of a small minority to fight for their beliefs, and for their way of life. It is the story of the defeat of the greatest army in the world by a small group of women and men, living in caves.

The story starts with Alexander the Great of Macedonia. Alexander, who set out to conquer the known world, reached the city of Jerusalem with his great army. News had reached the hereditary High Priest of Israel, his advisors, and the Elders of Israel that those cities and countries that had surrendered to Alexander had been left to rule themselves in peace, while those who fought against him had been destroyed. They decided to march out to meet Alexander in peace, in a great procession, lead by the High Priest himself, carrying the scrolls of the Torah, the Holy Law of the God of Israel. All the people of Jerusalem were there, dressed in their finest clothes and singing, and the gates were left open for the Greeks to enter in peace.

Alexander was happy to welcome the Jews into his growing empire, and they began to discuss Alexander’s standard terms of surrender. The King asked that a statue of him be placed in the Holy Temple, as was the custom in other lands. The High Priest explained God’s Law against idols, and suggested instead that every male child born in Israel that year be named “Alexander”, so that the King’s name would live forever. And so it was decreeed. To this day, Alexander remains a Hebrew name. And in return, the Israelites were allowed to rule themselves, and to continue to worship God in their own way.

But Alexander died young, and without an heir. So his generals fought over his empire, and the Middle East was divided in two. Israel became part of the Seleucid kingdom, with it’s capital in Syria. In 175 B.C.E. (Before Common Era), a new king came to the Seleucid throne. His name was Antiochus IV. He began to call himself Antiochus Epiphanes, which means “God Incarnate”, and decided that he was going to unify his empire by outlawing all local religions, replacing them with worship of himself as Zeus. Disobedience would be punished with death. The Jews began to call him Antiochus Epimanes, “The Madman”.

In 168 B.C.E., Antiochus ordered that an idol to be erected in the Temple, and pigs (unclean animals to the Jews) were to be sacrificed on the Holy Altar. Antiochus removed the golden vessels from the Temple’s Holy of Holies. He ordered all the Yeshivas (seminaries) to be closed, and all copies of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), and other Holy Books, were to be confiscated and burned.

King Antiochus also sent troops out to all the towns and villages of Israel to force them to observe the new state religion. When the King’s troops arrived in the village of Modi’in, in Judea, they made all the people come to the town square, and tried to convince Mattathias, the elderly and honored son of the former High Priest, to lead the villagers in pagan worship. Although Mattathias refused, another villager came forward to obey the King’s emissary. The old priest was so angered by this that he grabbed a short sword from the King’s emissary, and killed both the apostate and the emissary. Shouting “All who are for God, follow me!”, the old man, his five adult sons and their followers killed the soldiers, and together they fled to the hills. They lived in caves, and began to fight a guerrilla war against the Seleucids.

The following year, Mattathias died. Before his death, he gathered his sons, Shimon, Judah, Eleazar, Yochanan and Jonathan, and appointed as leader Judah, called “Maccabee” , or “the Hammer”. His followers became known as “The Maccabees”. They fought against the largest, strongest, and best trained army in the world, and defeated them in several battles. Finally, Judah lead the Maccabees in an attack on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and drove away the Seleucid garrison stationed there. And although the rest of the Holy City remained in the hands of the Seleucid army, the Maccabees stopped to give thanks to their God. The priests built a new Altar, and purified the Temple, but when it was time to light the Menorah (the seven branched candelabra), they could only find one little flask of olive oil, with the seal of the High Priest. This was enough to burn for only one day. But with great joy, the Temple was rededicated the next day, the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, 165 B.C.E..

But a Miracle occurred! That one flask of oil, instead of burning out in the morning, continued to burn! It burned for eight full days, until new purified oil could be prepared and brought to the Temple.

The Maccabees continued to fight the Seleucid empire. Judah Maccabee died in battle in 160 B.C.E., and Jonathan became the leader of the revolution. In 152 B.C.E., a civil war broke out among the Seleucid heirs, and the winner recognized Jonathan as the new High Priest and the ruler of Israel. The civil war continued, and another king arrested Jonathan, collected a ransom from Israel, and killed him anyway. The last of Mattathias’ five sons, Shimon, became the leader, and finally expelled the Seleucids from Israel in 142 B.C.E.. In 140 B.C.E., a great Assembly was held, declaring Shimon the Prince of Israel, as well as High Priest. Mattathias’ revolution finally resulted in independence for Israel.

So, what IS Chanukah? The word itself means “dedication”, since the holiday is celebrated beginning on the 25th day Kislev, the anniversary of the rededication of the Holy Temple by the Maccabees.
The reason you see so many different spellings for the word is that Hebrew has a totally different alphabet than English, and a few different systems are used to approximate the pronunciation of the Hebrew, with there being on official, standard one.

In memory of the Miracle of the Oil, the holiday is eight days long. Jewish holidays always begin at sundown, so for eight nights, candles or olive oil is burned in a nine armed candelabra, called a Menorah. One of the lights is called the Shammus, or servant light, used to light the others. On the first night, the Shammus light only one light, two on the second, three on the third, until all eight are glowing on the last night. Fried foods, such as Latkes (potato pancakes) and Sufganiot (jelly donuts), also commemorate the Miracle of the Oil.

Chanukah is a holiday for all ages, but there are some special traditions for children. One is a game, played with a toy called a Dreidel, a four sided top with a letter on each side. Although the letters are the initials for the Hebrew phrase “a Great Miracle Happened There”, they are also used as instructions for a betting game. Sometimes, nuts or candy is used for the bets, but it is traditional for adults to give children a gift of money, or “Gelt”. (Ever see net begs of golden coins? They’re Chanukah Gelt!) In the last half century, Jews have begun to also give larger gifts to their children on Chanukah. Many families give a gift for each of the eight nights of Chanukah.

And why is Chanukah (as well as all other Jewish holidays), celebrated on different dates each year? The Hebrew calendar is based on the phases of the moon. The first of every month is the New Moon, but twelve lunar months do not equal a solar year, and many Jewish holidays are also linked to a season of the year. So to keep the calendar in line with the seasons, there have to be leap years, when a month is added (to keep the New Moon as the first of the month). This accounts for the shifts in dates in the Common calendar when Jewish holidays are celebrated.

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