Also spelled hanukkah, means “dedication”. This Jewish holiday traces its roots back more than 2,000 years. At that time the Jewish people were living under the oppressive government of the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, (a rather ironic name) who was a descendant of Seleucus, the general of Alexander the Great. During his rule he forbade the reading of the Scriptures, circumcision, Sabbath observance, and a number of other religious practices. In order to further promote the “hellenization” of Palestine, 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, and under the leadership of Judas Maccabee (“the hammer”) the Syrians were overthrown, and the Temple had all signs of paganism removed. The statue to Jupiter was ground to dust. A feast was instituted on 25 Kislew, 165 B.C. for the purification of the Temple. The story goes that 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.
One of the most important Chanukah customs is to light colorful candles in a menorah or candelabrum with eight branches, one for each night of Chanukah and one prominent one that holds the candle to be used to light the others. On the first night, one candle is lit and each succeeding night another is added so that all eight are alight on the last night. Because the Chanukah story involved oil, foods fried in oil are traditional for the holiday. Potato pancakes appear to have come to us from Russia. There the Jews made “latkes” or pancakes from a great variety of ingredients, from cheese to buckwheat flour to noodles. Legend says that women behind the lines, during the Jews’ fight against the Syrians 2,000 years ago, made flat cakes for the warriors because they could be prepared quickly.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian