History of Chanukah

The Story Behind The Festival of Lights

Bill Petro

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Today at sundown, December 18th begins Chanukah. It is more commonly spelled Hanukkah.

Both are a transliteration of the Hebrew word חֲנֻכָּה‎ meaning “dedication.” This Jewish holiday traces its roots back more than 2,000 years.

Events Leading Up to Chanukah

At that time, the Jewish people were living under the oppressive government of the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV (a somewhat ironic name — Epiphanes means “God Manifest”), a descendant of Seleucus, one of the generals of Alexander the Great.

When Alexander died, he left no legitimate heir (that survived); instead, his empire was divided among the Diadochi, his surviving generals. For several centuries the divided empire was ruled by the rival dynasties of two of his generals:

  • Ptolemy controlled Egypt in the south; Cleopatra was the last of his line in the first century B.C.
  • Seleucus controlled Syria in the north; his descendant was Antiochus Epiphanies IV, who ruled Judea in the 2nd century B.C.

Jewish Crisis

During Antiochus’ rule, he forbade reading the Scriptures, circumcision, Sabbath observance, and several other Jewish religious practices. To further promote the “Hellenization” of Palestine, conforming it to Greek culture, he set up in the Temple of Jerusalem an altar dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter where swine were offered in sacrifice. This “Abomination of Desolation” caused the Jews to rebel in what became known as the Maccabean Revolt.

Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, “the Hammer,” the Syrians were overthrown, and the Temple had all signs of paganism removed. The statue of Jupiter was ground to dust. A feast was instituted on 25 Kislew, 165 B.C., for the Temple’s purification and re-dedication. The story goes that the light of the Temple was relit with only enough pure oil to last one day but miraculously lasted for eight days until more could be found. The Festival of Lights is celebrated for eight days.

Customs of Chanukah

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Bill Petro

Writer, historian, technologist. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com