Most people know that Hanukkah falls somewhere near Christmas, but that fact has led to a misunderstanding about the meaning of Hanukkah. Teachers in schools, magazine editors and retail store managers all treat Hanukkah as some kind of Jewish variation on Christmas. But the origins and meanings of these two holidays are very different.
The historical meaning of Hanukkah
Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of faith and courage over military might. It is the classic underdog story.
In the second century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) the Jews were prohibited from studying sacred texts or celebrating Jewish holidays. The penalty for violation of these rules was death.
In addition, the holy Temple had been defiled with pagan rituals, and they had been ordered to worship other gods. A small group of faithful Jews, known now as the Maccabees, rose up and defeated the invaders, reclaimed the Temple, cleansed it, removed the idols, and rededicated the space G-d.
Within the temple, there was a huge menorah (seven branched candelabra that burned oil) that had to be lit. This light was supposed to remain always lit within the Temple. But the sacred olive oil needed to burn in the Menorah took eight days to prepare. And there was only a one-day supply of oil on hand.
They decided to light the flame anyway. And, a great miracle occurred. The oil burned continuously for eight days, long enough for new oil to be purified.
Since that time, Hanukkah has been celebrated for eight days to recall the miracle when the menorah burned for eight days with only one day's supply of oil in the Temple.
The spiritual meaning of Hanukkah
Whether or not you believe the story of the miraculous oil, there is much to be learned from the Hanukkah story.
This is a tale of courage. The Macabees defied incredible odds and risked their lives to reclaim that which was sacred to them. This story, which predates all superhero characters, is essentially a superhero story in and of itself. Who but a band of superheroes could defy such overwhelming odds and survive to triumph? And yet these were ordinary people. Not superheroes. So too, we can accomplish things usually defined as too much for mere mortals.
Spiritually, it's a life lesson in risk taking, faith and remaining true to one's beliefs and practices, even when they are unpopular or even forbidden by official channels.
It's also a cautionary tale about the horrors of subjugation of minorities. These events continue to this day throughout the world. And to this day, most of us stand by idly while the majority takes away our rights and freedoms or some other group's rights and freedoms.
The Hanukkah story tells us to bravely stand up for those choices, even in the face of punishment or death.
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