The Origins of Hanukkah

The Jewish traditions celebrate the holiday Hanukkah until December 18th. Besides the traditions, the holiday holds a rich and ancient history.

Photo from Kveller, a Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The Jewish traditions celebrate the holiday Hanukkah until December 18th. Besides the traditions, the holiday holds a rich and ancient history.

Kelly Zarate, Co-editor in chief

In 200 BC, the Land of Israel, also known as Judea, was under the control of the Seleucid King of Syrian by the name of Antiochus III. For a short period of time, he allowed Jewish to practice their religion without any oppression freely. When his son, Antiochus IV, rose to power in 175 BC, he strayed from the ways of his father. Antiochus IV outlawed the Jewish religion and forced them to worship the Greek gods. The practice of Judaism was now punishable by death, and no rituals were allowed.

Years later, in 168 B.C., he ordered his soldiers to attack Jerusalem, killing thousands of Jewish followers and taking over the holy Second Temple and dedicating it as an altar to the Greek god Zeus. 

The rebellion then broke out with the Jewish priest Matthathias as their leader. He and his five sons sparked the revolt against the strong and powerful army. The battle lasted for three years until the death of Matthias. After his death, his son Judah Maccabee took over the rebellion. Despite the powerful army, Judah led the uprising to victory.

After the fall of Antiochus IV, Judah led his followers to rebuild the Second Temple by rebuilding its altar and restoring its former holiness. Upon returning, Judah and his followers only found some oil to light a menorah for a single night. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight nights, producing more oil and giving meaning to Hanukkah, or in Hebrew, dedication. The Jewish believed this to be a miracle.

 Lighting the menorah each night, eating latkes, and spinning the dreidel holds the ancient history, now giving meaning to the holiday as a symbol of freedom and dedication. Brandon Schwartz, a senior at Saugus High School, said, “Growing up, I learned more about what it means to be Jewish both through religious school as well as celebrating Jewish holidays at home, including Hanukkah. Learning about who I am and who my family is great. I love getting to know about why I am celebrating my culture and knowing the meaning behind it all.”

 Initially, the holiday was not gift related but was a celebration of light. Gifts were later introduced into the holiday in the 1950s when it’s close proximity to Christmas began to take notice. Christmas’s gift-giving tradition influences the Jewish families to incorporate this tradition into Hanukkah, especially in the United States.

Other than gifts, there are still plenty of other Hanukkah traditions that give meaning to the holiday. The dreidel is an iconic symbol of Hanukkah and derives from the word “spinning top.” My Jewish Learning states how the game is played, “Each player begins the game with an equal number of game pieces (about 10-15) such as pennies, nuts, chocolate chips, raisins, matchsticks, etc. At the beginning of each round, every participant puts one game piece into the center “pot.” In addition, every time the pot is empty or has only one game piece left, every player should put one in the pot. Every time it’s your turn, spin the dreidel once. Depending on the side it lands on, you give or get game pieces from the pot.”

The different symbol of the dreidel each have their own special translation: nun means nisht or the player does nothing, gimel means gantz, or the player gets everything in the pot, hey means halb, meaning the player only gets half of what is in the pot, shin means shtel or to put in. My Jewish Learning continues by saying, “If you find that you have no game pieces left, you are either out or may ask a fellow player for a “loan.” When one person has won everything, that round of the game is over!”

The food in the holiday also plays an iconic part in celebrating. Latkes and sufganiyot, usually cooked in oil, are a traditional food to give tribute to the oil Judah and his followers found in the temple.

Though the holiday comes from a turbulent past, today it celebrates light and freedom from their oppressors while enjoying the rich traditions that go with it.