Jerusalem, Dec. 20 – Jews in Israel and around the world begin the eight-day festival of Chanukah today, commemorating the uprising almost 2,200 years ago against the Seleucid kingdom of King Antiochus IV, who sacked Jerusalem and ordered the Jews to stop practicing their religion.
Each day after sundown during Chanukah, Jews around the world light the chanukiah, a special candelabra, adding an additional candle each night. The lights commemorate the story of the miracle of a small pot of oil found in the ruins of the holy Jewish temple destroyed by the Hellenistic Seleucids. Instead of lasting for one day, the oil in the candelabra lasted for eight days.
Known as the Festival of Lights, Chanukah is joyously celebrated by religious and secular Jews alike, and in Israel children have a holiday from school. The festival creates a minor upheaval in the workplace as parents take vacation days or find daytime activities to keep youngsters occupied.
This year the eight days of Chanukah coincide with Christmas celebrations that are scheduled to take place in the major Christian communities this weekend. Christmas Day is Sunday (Dec. 25).
The victory of the Maccabean Jews two millennia ago who were fighting for their religious freedom has parallels to modern day democratic Israel.
“Of course there is a direct link between the fighting for freedom of the Maccabees and the last two generations of Israelis fighting for their own independence – for the state of Israel,” said Professor Menachem Friedman of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
Friedman added that Israel today faces the same struggle of the Maccabees against assimilation, with modern Israel seeking to guard its traditions and also “be a nation among the nations – modern, secular and part of the western culture.”
Activities across Israel range from chanukiah lightings in town squares and museum exhibits to hiking trips through historic sites in the Judean Hills where the Maccabees fought.
Israelis and Jews around the world also mark Chanukah by eating sufganiyot – cream- or jelly-filled donuts. Children play games with four-sided spinning tops called dreidels.
The four sides of the tops are marked with the Hebrew letters each beginning the words a Great Miracle Happened Here. Outside of Israel the last letter is different, since the words mean a Great Miracle Happened There.