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Hanukkah, a festival of eight consecutive days, and perhaps the most well-known Jewish celebration.
It is not an equivalent to Christmas, as has been identified in some Western countries, but the celebration of religious freedom and expression; a party with a deep social and theological context, that the latest events make current. Understanding its origin and its true current meaning will help us to understand a bit better one of the most visible parts of Jewish culture, and perhaps some of the events that we can see these days in the news.
Although dating back 2,200 years ago, Hanukkah is one of the newest annual Jewish celebrations, and it does not even appear in the Hebrew bible. The historical event that marks its origin is recorded in the post-Biblical books of the Maccabees, which appears in the Catholic biblical canon, but which is not considered part of the Bible by the Jews and many of the Protestant denominations.
Based on the Greco-Roman model of celebrating military triumphs, Hanukkah was established in the year 164 a. of C. to commemorate the victory of the Maccabees - a ragged Jewish army - against the powerful troop of King Antiochus IV of Syria.
In 168 a. of Antiochus banned Judaism and forced those who professed that faith to adopt pagan rituals and assimilate Greek culture; but the Maccabees rose up against this persecution. They took the city of Jerusalem and withdrew the symbols of pagan worship from the temples, thus reinstating the cult ordained by God in the Hebrew bible, which Antiochus had attacked.
However, this military triumph did not last long. The descendants of the Maccabees - the Hasmonean dynasty - constantly violated their own Jewish laws and traditions.
And what is even more: the subsequent centuries witnessed the devastation that occurred when the Jews tried to emulate the achievements of the Maccabees. At that time, Rome controlled the land of Israel and the Jews rose up against this oppressive foreign power in two revolts: between 68 and 70 AD. of C. and between 133 and 135 d. of C.
The first of these rebellions culminated in the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, center of the Jewish cult, which had stood for 600 years. During the second uprising, Jerusalem was devastated and innumerable Jews were condemned to death.
The war no longer seemed an effective solution to the tribulations of the Jews throughout history.
In response, a new stream of thought was throwing down the idea that Jews should or could change their destiny through military action. What they needed, the rabbis preached, was not the battle but the perfect observance of the moral law and ritual of God. This would lead to the intervention of God to restore the control of the Jewish people over their land and their destiny.
In this context the rabbis re thinked the origin of Hanukkah as a celebration of military victory. Instead, they said, this celebration should commemorate the miracle that occurred during the restoration of the temple by the Maccabees: the story that should be told from that moment was how a jug of oil that reached only for a day of light, he illuminated the Eternal Light ('Ner Tamid') of the temple for eight whole days, long enough to produce a new batch of ritual oil. [The eternal light must always remain lit].
The most recent version of this story appears in the Talmud, in a 6th century document. From that moment, Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of God instead of the military victory of the Maccabees.
This is symbolized by lighting an eight-branched candelabrum (plus a ninth one in the center), which is called menorah or hanukkiah, lighting a candle the first night of Hanukkah celebration and lighting a new candle every night until the eight candles are completed at the end of the eight days of celebration. The ninth candle of the menorah is used to light the others.
However, during the medieval period, Hanukkah was a minor Jewish celebration.
In the last 100 years, this celebration has been gaining prominence in the lives of Jews throughout the world. So, how should Hanukkah be interpreted today?
This festival has been a reflection of the needs of Jews throughout history, and today has been reinterpreted to adapt to modern circumstances, something that is recorded in the book Hanukkah in America ('Hanukkah in America ') of the academic in religion Dianne Ashton.
Ashton shows that although Hanukkah has evolved in countries like the United States hand in hand with the extravagance of the Christmas season, his story goes much further.
Hanukkah today [in the United States] responds to the desire of the Jews to see their history as a consequence or a reflection of religious freedom, a value they share with the rest of the Americans. With its bright decorations, songs and celebrations aimed at the family and the union of the community, Hanukkah also fulfills the function of injecting the most disaffected Jews and the children the illusion for Judaism.
Hanukkah tells a story of persecution and redemption and provides a historical paradigm that can help today's Jews to reflect on the Holocaust and the emergence of Zionism [Jewish political movement that defends the Israeli independent state in Palestinian territory].
In summary, Hanukkah is such a powerful commemorative feast today because it responds to a variety of factors pertinent to the history and contemporary life of the Jews.
Over the course of two thousand years, Hanukkah has evolved to meet the needs of successive generations of Jews. Each tells the story as it needs to be heard at that moment, in relation to the values of Judaism throughout history, but also according to the particular culture, ideology and experience of the moment.