Dear Media Professional:
Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, will be observed this year beginning at sundown on Saturday, December 24 and concluding at sundown on Sunday, January 1. As the metro Detroit Jewish community prepares to celebrate Chanukah, we will commemorate the miracle of religious freedom and the Maccabees’ victory over tyranny as we focus on family, faith and community. Our prayers are for peace for Israel and the entire Middle East, the safety of our troops overseas, and a bright future for Detroit Jewry and for all the residents of greater Detroit. Enclosed is information prepared by the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC that explains the history and significance of Chanukah, as well as how the holiday is celebrated.
WHAT IT IS
A festive holiday celebrated for eight days and eight nights beginning the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew lunar calendar, Chanukah is also called the Festival of Lights. The word Chanukah is Hebrew for dedication.
WHAT IT IS NOT
Although it usually falls in late November or during the month of December, Chanukah is not “the Jewish Christmas.” Christmas is a sacred Christian holy day that celebrates the birth of Jesus, the Christian messiah, while Chanukah is a festival observed uniquely by Jewish families.
THE HISTORY OF CHANUKAH (as told in the Book of Maccabees, an apocryphal work)
In 175 Before the Common Era (B.C.E. or B.C.), Antiochus IV became King of Syria, the land to which Israel had been annexed. He tried to force the Jews to renounce their faith and customs and to worship Greek idols. Antiochus’ plan was to force a kingdom of “one people,” all with the same beliefs. He became the champion of an intense hellenization. On the 25th of Kislev in 167 B.C.E., the enforced hellenization of the Jews reached its peak. Antiochus decreed that any Jew caught observing the Sabbath, possessing the Torah or Five Books of Moses, or in any way maintaining Jewish customs and not worshipping the Greek gods, would be killed. He also ordered that the central Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was to be desecrated and renamed Zeus Olympius.
In the small town of Modi’in, located northwest of Jerusalem, a man named Mattathias, along with his five sons, rallied Jews from the entire country to join their forces in opposition to the Syrians and their evil decrees. Mattathias’s call for action was “Whoever is for G-d, follow me.” On his deathbed in 166 B.C.E., Mattathias asked his son, Judah Maccabee, to continue the fight for religious and personal freedom. “Maccabee” is Hebrew for “hammer.” It symbolizes how Judah and his followers acted as the “hammer of the Lord” while they fought the numerically superior Syrians. The word “Maccabee” is associated with the motto on the banner the fighters raised. In Hebrew, the first letters of the words “Who is like unto thee among the mighty, Oh Lord,” spell the word “Maccabee.”
Judah Maccabee and his small band of followers won a series of brilliant military victories over the more numerous Syrians. The fighting culminated in 164 B.C.E., with the victory of Judah Maccabee and his followers over forces of the the Syrian commander-in-chief Lysias. The Maccabees gained possession of Jerusalem and began to cleanse the Temple, which had been desecrated by the Syrians. The 25th of Kislev was set as the date for rededication of the Temple to coincide with the third anniversary of Antiochus’ evil decree. According to the Book of Maccabees, celebrations to rededicate the Temple lasted eight days, and Judah decreed that they be designated as days of rejoicing for future generations.
Tradition holds that at the time of the rededication, only one oil vessel could be found to burn in the NER TAMID (NAIR TAH-MEED), or Eternal Light, which hung over the Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls. This container of oil held only enough to burn for one day, but the oil lasted miraculously for eight days. Since the Maccabean victory, Chanukah candles have been lit in Jewish homes in all parts of the world to commemorate the relighting of the Eternal Light. The festival reminds Jews that by fighting Antiochus’s tyranny, the Maccabees maintained the identity and religious freedom of the Jewish people and preserved Judaism.
HOW IT IS CELEBRATED
A candle is lit on the first night of the holiday, with an additional candle lit each successive night until, on the final night, eight candles are burning. In addition to the eight candles on the Chanukah MENORAH (MAH-NO-RAH), or candelabrum, there is a master candle, called the SHAMMAS (SHAH-MUS), which is used each night to light all the other candles. Its holder is placed at the top or to one side of the other holders. The candles can be of many bright colors, adding to the joy of the holiday. Special prayers of praise and thanksgiving hymns are recited during every service over the eight days of Chanukah. “Rock of Ages,” perhaps the most popular of Chanukah songs, is a special hymn of thanksgiving. Its Hebrew title is MAOZ TZUR (MAH-OZ-TZOOR).
Chanukah is also marked by the giving of gifts. Among the special foods prepared during Chanukah are “latkes” (potato pancakes) and jelly-filled donuts. A favorite game played during Chanukah is DREIDLE (DRAY-DUL). A four-sided top (the dreidle) is spun and, depending on the top letter showing after the dreidle stops spinning, the player will either contribute to the kitty, take the entire kitty, win half of the kitty, or pass. The stakes are usually nuts, candy or small amounts of change. The four Hebrew letters are the initial letters of the Hebrew words “Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” which means “a great miracle happened there.”
Chanukah is not celebrated solely in the home. There are parties, concerts and plays held in gaily decorated settings. Special events in celebration of the holiday are usually arranged by a large number of Jewish community institutions. The Torch Relay, a recent addition to Chanukah custom, takes place in Israel. A torch is lit in Modi’in, home of the Maccabees. In the relay, the torch is passed until the final runner presents the torch to the President of the State of Israel amidst a waiting and cheering crowd in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. The relay reaffirms the courage and inspiration of the modern Israeli “Maccabees” who persist in their struggle for religious freedom and the very existence of their nation.