Many non-Jews think of Chanukah as, “What Jews do at Christmastime.”
Others know the story of “a little cruse of oil” that was supposed to last for one day, but “miraculously” lasted for eight.
In truth the cruse of oil story is as much the reason Jews celebrate Chanukah, as Santa Claus is the reason religious Christians celebrate Christmas.
The real story of Chanukah is long and complex, but here is its essence, and the vital lesson it teaches all of us today.
Long ago in Judaea (about 168 BCE), the Syrian Greeks and their King Antiochus ruled over Judea. 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.
- There were Jews who were loyal to their religion and way of life.
- Another group of Jews thought it would be to their advantage if they acted 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.
In order to accomplish their goal, this second group of Jew 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.
So instead of studying Torah, observing Holy Days, and the Sabbath, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.
The tension between these two groups of Jews reached the point that a civil war erupted between them.
When he saw that there was violence in the streets of Judaea, Antiochus sent in his troops and outlawed the Jewish religion and all Jewish practice. His forces polluted the Temple in Jerusalem with idols of Greek gods, and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.
The Jewish forces, known as the Maccabees, fought against the Syrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea. It was the first time in history people fought for religious liberty. And they won!
Chanukah is an eight-day Jewish festival commemorating that victory.
But religious freedom is a value we all should treasure and celebrate.