The first week of December this year, people around the world are celebrating the eight-day festival known as Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights. The name of the holiday comes from the Hebrew word (Chanukah), meaning “Dedication” or “Consecration.”
Although according to Jewish custom it is considered a minor holiday, Hanukkah has become, alongside Passover and Purim, one of the most beloved Jewish holidays.
In the year 168 B. C. E, Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes sent soldiers to Jerusalem, where the Syrians desecrated the temple – one of the holiest places for Jews at this time. The king also outlawed observance of the Shabbat, or Sabbath, festivals, and circumcision, instead setting up altars for the Greek gods. The Jews were given an ultimatum: convert or be put to death. On the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the temple was renamed and dedicated to the Greek god, Zeus. The Jews led a resistance movement and although they were outnumbered, they won two major battles against the Syrians.
This is why the festival is known as Chanukah, or dedication. It is named in commemoration of the rededication of the temple following the Greek occupation of said holy place. Today, it is celebrated as a reminder for modern Jews to rededicate themselves to keep the flame of Judaism alive and “live Jewish” for years and generations to come.
Legend has it that when the Jews re-entered the temple to reclaim it, they immediately relit the ner tamid or “eternal light,” which burned constantly in the temple and is still celebrated in synagogues today. There was only one bottle of oil left in the temple, however, which normally is only enough to light it for one day. They sent a messenger out to retrieve more oil, but it took him eight days to complete this task. To their surprise, the eternal light continued to burn for all eight days until the messenger returned.
Today, Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days in remembrance of this. Jews around the world light the Menorah, a candelabra with eight candles. A candle is lit every night of the festival. Originally, gifts were not given, but in the early 1900s, Jews began to add gift-giving to Hanukkah celebrations. It is celebrated through traditional foods such as braised brisket and latkes (potato pancakes), games such as dreidel, and the exchanging of gifts.
Here in the Chattanooga and North Georgia area, the Jewish community is quite close knit, being small in numbers. During the weeks of Hanukkah, there were several dinners, including a dinner at Mizpah Congregation on Friday, Dec. 7. Everyone brought their menorahs and lit them together. There was also a handmade menorah contest, during which many people got to display their creative side while celebrating the beloved festival of lights.