At sundown Saturday, Chanukah begins as Jews throughout the Calumet area light the first candle of the menorah.
Often called the Festival of the Lights, Chanukah commemorates a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion that occurred in ancient Israel during the 2nd century BCE (Before the Common Era).
However, it is a minor Jewish festival of rededication that has become the most assimilated, secular holiday in the Jewish calendar, according to two local rabbis.
“Chanukah celebrates the victory of a small group of Jewish fighters who defeated a much larger Assyrian Greek army,” said Rabbi Ben Kramer of Munster-based Congregation Beth Israel, a conservative synagogue serving Northwest Indiana and Chicago’s south suburbs.
“It was a fight for political sovereignty and religious freedom,” he said of the fight that took more than two decades.
Those freedom fighters were the Hasmonian family of priests from Modin, although they are often called Maccabees, said Rabbi Leonard Zukrow of Temple Beth-El in Munster, a reform Jewish congregation. Maccabee is derived from the Hebrew meaning for “hammer."
“They were a priestly family who were pushed out of the Temple in Jerusalem and fought back,” Zukrow said. In 164 BCE, Jerusalem was recaptured from the armies of Antiochus IV Epiphane and the defiled Temple was purified, an event that gave birth to the holiday of Chanukah.
There are miracles involved in the celebration of this victory, Kramer said.
“Part of what is a miracle is the odds were against us and we triumphed. The other part is what we commemorate with the menorah – God’s presence in the Temple and in Israel. It is God’s return to the Temple in a metaphoric way,” he said.
The miracle of lights refers to one day of consecrated oil that burned for eight days after the Temple was taken back by the Hasmonians and cleansed, Zukrow said.
Producing consecrated oil to light the temple was labor intensive and took a long time, he said.
Eight of the candles on the menorah symbolize those eight days. The flame from the ninth center candle is used to light the others, which is also a significant part of Judaism, Zukrow said.
“We are asked to kindle a light for ourselves and others,” he said.
Chanukah is “a man-made holiday, not a Biblical holiday,” Zukrow said.
“The Talmud (the sacred texts of Rabbinic Judaism, second only to the Torah) covers the lighting of the Temple oil in only one-quarter page. Without the Books of the Maccabees (found in the Christian Bible), we wouldn’t know about this,” he said.
“If you were in Israel now, you won’t even know it was Chanukah, except that there are menorahs on the top of some buildings with the candles lit each night,” Zukrow said.
“It is a big holiday in America because of its proximity to Christmas,” Kramer said. However, it should never be called “the Jewish Christmas," and was never meant as a time for gifts to be given, both spiritual leaders said.
The menorah is a candelabrum that was meant to be placed outside of homes as a public display in ancient times, Kramer said. However, when Jews migrated to areas such as Eastern Europe with its cold winters, that practice changed, he said.
Today, Jews are to place the menorah in a window “to share the miracle by making it known publicly,” Zukrow said. “I see it as reflecting upon Jewish identity. By sharing the menorah, it is a bold step by saying ‘I’m Jewish.'”
Several other symbols of Chanukah have come down through the ages, the rabbis said.
The dreidel is a top or toy with four Hebrew letters on it that stand for the saying, “A great miracle occurred here,” Kramer said.
Some scholars say the dreidel was used by rabbinical students to learn their lessons during times of oppression as a way to thwart the authorities.
Another tradition is the giving of gold coins or “gelt.”
Both Kramer and Zukrow said the coins, which are now chocolate wrapped in gold foil, symbolize the sovereignty of Israel that was wrested away from the Assyrian Greeks.
“They were able to mint their own coins,” Kramer said.
Foods fried in oil — especially doughnuts, latkes or potato pancakes and blintzes — are traditionally served during Chanukah to commemorate the oil that miraculously burned for eight days, Zukrow said.