Why is Chanukah Eight Nights?

256px-The_8th_NightFrom The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living, by Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication” and refers to the joyous eight-day celebration through which Jews commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over the armies of Syria in 165 BCE and the subsequent liberation and “rededication” of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Unlike most Jewish holidays, Chanukah is not mentioned in the Torah, Prophets, or Writings. The historical events upon which the celebration is based are recorded in I and II Maccabees, two books contained within a later collection of writings known as the Apocrypha.

When the final format of the bible was debated (first century CE), a number of books were considered for inclusion but ultimately rejected. The two Books of Maccabees were among those passed over. Sometime later, because of the popularity of some of the rejected writings, fourteen of them were gathered into a single collection called the Apocrypha. The term “Apocrypha” comes from a Greek word meaning “hidden writing.” While the apocryphal works were never made part of the Hebrew Bible, they were included in the Greek and Latin versions and are considered sacred text by some Christian denominations.

Chanukah is technically considered a “minor” Jewish festival. Yet today it ranks along with Pesach and Purim as one of the most beloved Jewish family holidays. Clearly, the stirring story associated with Chanukah, the rituals that emerged from it, and the special Chanukah games and foods combined to capture the imagination and elevate its status within the Jewish community.

The Chanukah story: In the year 168 BCE, the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes sent his soldiers to Jerusalem. The Syrians desecrated the Temple, and Antiochus abolished Judaism. The only options he offered Jews were conversion or death. Altars and idols were set up throughout Judea for the purpose of worshipping Greek gods. Antiochus outlawed the observance of Shabbat, the Festivals, and circumcision.

On the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in 168 BCE, the Temple was renamed for the Greek god Zeus. Pigs were sacrificed in the Temple. The Torah was splattered with pigs’ blood and then burned. Thousands of Jews chose to die rather than commit idolatry. Among these martyrs was a woman named Hannah who, with her seven sons, defied the Syrian decree.

But slowly a resistance movement developed against the cruelty of Antiochus, led by a priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, or the Maccabees. The head of the family was an elderly man named Mattathias. He and his five sons left Jerusalem and took up residence in a small town north of Jerusalem, called Modi’in. When Syrian soldiers appeared in the town and commanded the inhabitants to offer sacrifices to Zeus, Mattathias and his sons refused. Mattathias killed one Jew who began to sacrifice to Zeus, and his sons then turned upon the Syrian troops and slew them.

I was a turning point in the struggle. The Maccabees became instant folk heroes. Fleeing to the hills with their followers, they conducted a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the occupying Syrian forces. Mattathias’s son, Judah, known as “the Hammer,” became the chief strategist and military leader.

Furious, Antiochus decided to destroy the people of Judea. He sent a large army, with instructions to kill every man, woman, and child. Though outnumbered, Judah Maccabee and his fighters miraculously won two major battles, routing the Syrians decisively. By 165 BCE, the terror of Antiochus had ended. The Jews had won a victory for their land and their faith.

The idols were torn down and, on the morning of the twenty-fifth day of Kislev in 165 BCE, the Temple in Jerusalem was reconsecrated – three years to the day after its original defilement. In celebration, the people of Jerusalem lit bright lights in front of their homes and decided to mark their deliverance with an annual eight-day festival. It was called the Feast of Lights, the Feast of Dedication, or simply Chanukah.

Originally, the eight-day Feast of Lights was intended to parallel the eight days of Sukkot. The Books of Maccabees made no mention of the beautiful legend concerning the jar of oil that has come to be a part of Chanukah. Several centuries later (500 CE), the story of the cruse of oil emerged in the Talmud.

The legend relates that when the Maccabees entered the Temple and began to cleanse it, they immediately relit the ner tamid, or “eternal light.” A single jar of oil remained, which was sufficient for only one day. The messenger who was sent to secure additional oil took eight days to complete his mission. But, miraculously, the single cruse of oil continued to burn for eight days. The Rabbis of the Talmud, therefore, attributed the eight days of Chanukah to the miracle of the little jar of oil.

Photo: By Dov Harrington (originally posted to Flickr as The 8th Night) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons