So, how do you spell it? Here is my rationale for "Chanukkah". First, there is the Hebrew letter chet, the guttural sound that is different from an "h". The two "k"s are because the Hebrew letter kaf has a dot in it to make it a strong letter. The "h" at the end is because the word ends in Hebrew with the unpronounced letter hay, just like the final "h" is silent in English but written out anyway.
Practices and customs:
- The Chanukiyyah ("Menorah") is lit and placed in the window "to publicize the miracle", and can be lit up until the time when the last people are returning "from the marketplace."
- How to light the Chanukiyyah including the words for the blessings
- Listen to the Spira-Savetts (a bit younger!) sing the blessings
- Draydel top
The story, in summary:
The events of Chanukkah take place in the 160s B.C.E., about a century and a half after the Middle East was conquered by Alexander the Great of Macedon. After his death, his empire was divided in two, ruled from Egypt and Syria. His successors in both capitals mostly allowed the nations they conquered to live by their own customs, so long as they supported the empire in various ways. In that world, in the century prior to the Chanukkah story, the Jews translated the Torah into Greek, a translation known as the Septuagint.
A king named Antiochus Epiphanies ("god made manifest") came to power in Syria. He instituted decrees outlawing Jewish practices and took over the Temple in Jerusalem, making it an altar to Zeus. Various histories (see below) tell that infighting among the Jews of the Land of Israel created an opening or pretext for Antiochus.
A family of kohanim ("priests") called the Hasmoneans led a rebellion against Antiochus. The revolt began when the king required a Jewish man to bring a public sacrifice for Antiochus. In one version, this took place in Modi'in, a town between Jerusalem and today's Tel Aviv, where the head of the Hasmonean family, Matityahu (Mattathias) killed both the enforcing soldier and the Jewish man. The Hasmoneans led a group of rebels into the mountains where they conducted a war for about three years. They were led by Matityahu's son Yehuda (Judah), who was known as "Maccabeus", which might mean "The Hammer". The name has also been explained as a Hebrew acronym for Mi Chamocha Ba-Elim Adonai, "Who is like You among those regarded as gods", from Moshe's and Miryam's song of freedom at the Sea of Reeds.
The Hasmoneans were both faithful to Jewish ways and also innovators. Antiochus' forces originally would attack them on Shabbat, when the use of weapons was prohibited. But the Hasmoneans instituted a rule that fighting to save their lives supersedes the specific laws of Shabbat.
Eventually, the Hasmoneans retook the city of Jerusalem. The rededicated the altar in the Temple. They instituted an eight-day festival on the 25th of the month of Kislev. Originally this festival was patterned on Sukkot, which they had not been able to celebrate as a pilgrimage, and which was also the occasion when King Solomon had dedicated the original first Temple.
Why the name Chanukkah, and what about the miracle of the oil?
The earliest sources do not name the festival, but the word "Chanukkah" means "dedication", since the altar was rededicated for Jewish use. The story about a hidden cruse of oil that was found is told in the Talmud a few hundred years after the events of Chanukkah. The legend tells that there was only enough oil to burn for one day, but it lasted for eight. It has been suggested that the rabbis of the Talmud wanted to divert attention from the military revolt of the Hasmoneans, since they did not want Jews of their own time to revolt against the Romans and other ruling powers. But there is great symbolism in the legend, even if we don't take it literally. The hidden oil represents hidden power and hidden hope. The small cruse of oil represents the small Jewish people, continuing to overpower much larger darkness.
We know about the history from books in the Apocrypha known today as I Maccabees and II Maccabees. The Apocrypha consists of books that some Christian traditions consider holy and are included along with the original Hebrew Bible texts and the Christian scriptures in certain Bible. I and II Maccabees were written by Jews, by preserved in Greek by Christians
- Text of I Maccabees -- our story is in chapters 1-4
- Text of II Maccabees -- our story is in chapters 1-10
I Maccabees is interesting in that it presents the intrusion by Antiochus as the result of an invitation from Jews who were "Hellenizers", interested in getting rid of Jewish practices and taking on Greek ones. II Maccabees is particularly interesting for its detailed focus on corruption and infighting among the Jewish kohanim who were responsible for the Temple in Jerusalem, and the promise of bribes that Antiochus finally came to collect.
Another interesting telling, from a couple centuries after the events, is based on the first two sources. It is in the writings of Josephus Flavius, a historian and general of the first century C.E. He was Jewish and eventually defected to help the Romans put down the Jewish revolt, and he aimed to explain Jewish history and ideas to the Romans. He is best known for telling the story of the Jews of Masada at the end of the Great Revolt during which the Romans destroyed the Temple. Josephus' telling from his Antiquities of the Jews is here. It's not short but his preface about the translation of the Torah, based on an earlier source, is fascinating as a window on the relationship of Jews and the wider culture.