Many people think of the eight-day festival of Chanukah, which runs this year from the evening of December 10 – December 18, as “the Jewish answer to Christmas.”
Others have learned that Chanukah is about “a little cruse of oil that miraculously burned for eight days.” The truth is the cruse of oil is no more the reason Jews celebrate Chanukah than Santa Claus is the reason committed Christians celebrate Christmas.
Here then is a short summary of why Chanukah is important:
Long ago in Judaea (about 165 BCE), peace and prosperity reigned, but tension lurked beneath the surface. The Assyrian Greeks and their King Antiochus ruled over Judea, and they were content to leave the Jews alone as long as they paid their taxes and there was peace in the streets.
At this time there were basically two types of Jews living in Judaea. One group was Jews loyal to their religion and their ancient Covenant with God. They wanted to preserve and practice their ancient heritage.
There was another group of Jews at that time as well. Most of them were wealthy and thought it would be to their advantage if they were more like the Greeks. They thought their Jewish customs and religious celebrations made it harder to have good relationships and make profitable business relationships with wealthy Greek businessmen.
So, this second group of Jews stopped practicing their religion. They wanted to see Judaea become a Greek city state. If that happened Judaea could coin its own money, which would be a great advantage in business. Instead of studying the Torah, observing Holy Days and Festivals, and living Jewish lives, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.
There was much tension between these two groups of Jews, and eventually they started fighting with each other. It was a Jewish civil war.
When he saw that there was violence in the streets of Judaea, Antiochus sent in his troops. He outlawed all Jewish practice and polluted the Temple with idols of Greek gods and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.
The Maccabees (the name adopted by the Jews who took up arms against Antiochus’ army) fought against the Assyrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea. They fought for the first time in history for the cause of religious liberty. And they won!
The Story of Chanukah teaches is an important lesson for all of us today. Religious freedom and the right to be different are precious rights that we should never take for granted.