Many holidays and holy days are days set aside to REMEMBER a certain person or event. Chanukah is like that. The story of Chanukah is a story of events that took place more than 2000 years ago. It is a story of a miracle -- and a fight for freedom. I will tell it to you now.
A long time ago, the Jewish people lived in the land of Israel, which at that time, was called Judea. Its capital and most holy city was Jerusalem. For many years, the Jews worked hard to build a beautiful temple there. On Shabbat – the Sabbath -- and on holy days, the people came to the Temple to pray.
The Jews of Judea were not a free people. They were ruled by the kings of nearby Syria. For a time, these rulers let the Jews pray and celebrate according to their own religion. But then a cruel king named Antiochus came to power. Antiochus was a follower of the Greek religion, and he wanted everyone in his land to believe the same as he did. He told the Jews:
You may not pray to your God.
You may not study your holy book, called the torah.
You may not observe your holidays, not even the Sabbath.
And he put an altar to the Greek god Zeus inside the Jew’s beautiful temple.
Those who did not obey these new laws were punished. Thousands of Jews were killed, and many of the women and children were sold as slaves. The Jews were without hope. Many people were so afraid that they chose to follow the new laws rather than face the consequences. But others took to the hills outside the city, and learned to fight. One of the first to publicly refuse to obey the laws was an old man named Mattathias. Mattathias refused to follow the king’s law and invited anyone who believed as he did to follow him into the hills.
Mattathias and his sons trained a small army of Jewish soldiers. The king’s army was much larger and had strong weapons. But the small band of Jews knew the hills much better than the army did so they were able to hold their own.
When Mattathias died, his son Judah became the leader. Judah was known as “Macabee,” which meant “Hammer,” and his followers became known as the Macabees. This small group of farmers and shepherds became experts at the art of surprise in war.
For instance, one time, Judah knew that Antiochus’s soldiers were about to attack, so he lit a ring of campfires to make it look like his men were in that spot. But then he led his men away. While half of the enemy’s army was attacking the empty campsite, Judah and the Macabees surprised the other half and won that battle. It is said there were more than 6 enemy soldiers for each Macabee, but still, the mighty army of Antiochus was beaten. And Judah led the Macabees to Jerusalem.
Now, this should have been a wonderful time for the Maccabees. They were returning to the place they loved most in the world after long difficult years. But when they arrived at the Temple, they could only despair. The handsome gate had been burned, weeds had overgrown the courtyard, rooms and altars were broken down, and the Zeus idol was still prominent. Everything that had been lovely was destroyed.
The Jewish fighters then became builders!
They scrubbed and polished the stone walls, cleaned the courtyards, removed the rubble and the Idol, and built a new altar. When all this was done, they turned to light the Menorah, which in those days burned a pure oil to keep its lights aglow. As long as Jewish people can remember, it has been important to keep a flame burning in the Temple. This is called the “Eternal Flame.” But there was no oil!
According to legend, they searched and searched, and finally found enough oil to light the menorah for one night. Now this is where the Miracle comes in. The Maccabees sent a rider for more of the sacred oil in a distant city, but they were determined to rededicate the Temple right away so they lit the little bit of pure oil that they had found. And that itsy, little bit of oil lasted not one night, but eight days and eight nights, until more oil could be secured. That is why Chanukah is often referred to as the Festival of Lights.
Today, more than 2000 years later, people all around the world still gather to celebrate Chanukah. It is a time to recall the ancient miracles, to celebrate the victory of the Macabees, and most importantly, the right of all people to practice their own religion and worship in freedom.