Hanukkah: Celebration of freedom

Freedom New Mexico

Observant Jews around the world began the celebration of Hanukkah, a festival of lights, on Wednesday.

It was instituted to celebrate the liberation of Israel from domination by the Syrian Seleucid empire, which sought to suppress the traditional Hebrew religion by law and violence. It is thus a celebration of religious freedom, as well as the triumph of light over darkness, of spirituality over materialism.

These concepts are symbolized by the lighting of the traditional Menorah, the eating of special foods and giving gifts to children.

The Syrian Seleucid emperor Antiochus III (ruled 221-186 BCE) established his rule over Israel after winning a war with Egypt. His policies were fairly tolerant of local religions, but when Antiochus IV began his reign in 174 BCE things changed. After a small-scale rebellion in Israel he responded with a vengeance, killing many Israelis and outlawing certain traditional religious practices, including circumcision. He favored a faction called “Hellenized Jews,” who sought to incorporate Greek concepts of beauty, art, and culture into Israeli culture.

As Syrian soldiers sought to enforce the new laws in smaller villages they encountered resistance in the village of Modin, where the priest, Mattityahu, resisted their orders and ended up leading the villagers to kill the Syrians. He and his sons, led by Judah Maccabee, fled to the hills where they conducted a guerrilla campaign against the Syrian overlords. After they won three battles against progressively larger Syrian armies, the Syrians retreated, leaving Israel to the Israelis.

The Maccabees then sought to cleanse the temple the Syrians had desecrated. One of the rituals was to burn an oil light for eight days, but they found only one cruse of purified oil, enough for a single day, and it would take eight days to create a new supply of purified oil. According to custom, the light miraculously burned for eight days.

This miracle is celebrated by the lighting of the branched Menorah, one additional light per day until all eight lights are burning. Foods cooked in oil like potato pancakes and donuts are eaten, and gifts of money, or Hanukkah gelt, are given to children. The children play with the dreidl, a spinning top with a spiritual message.

Concepts like freedom of religion evolve over time (and are generally accompanied by spirited debate as to whether this particular change is real progress). Freedom from having a government-established religion, for example, is of fairly recent origin historically speaking, and still not practiced in much of Europe. But the idea that it is wrong to suppress religion and religious practices through violence and the force of law, as Hanukkah reminds us, is of relatively ancient and honorable origin, and has influenced those religions influenced by Judaism, mainly Christianity and Islam. It is spiritually and culturally healthy, not just for Jews but for all of us, to have that concept embedded in our way of life.