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Hanukkah history

December 10, 1998|By MEG H. PARTINGTON

Hanukkah is largely rooted in history, but the interpretations of the history it celebrates are varied.

The eight-day holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, begins at sundown today.

The celebration and what it means changes from generation to generation, says Rabbi Janice Garfunkel of Congregation B'nai Abraham in Hagerstown.

[cont. from lifestyle]

Jewish rituals were outlawed in 167 B.C. when King Antiochus Epiphanes forced all people under his rule in Syria to devote their lives to Greek ways, according to information on the Jewish Community Network Web site. An old priest named Mattathias and his five sons led a guerrilla war against the Greeks and their Jewish allies. Before dying of old age, he passed on leadership to his son, Judah the Maccabee, who led forces that eventually defeated Antiochus' armies, the site says.

Thirty or 40 years ago, the Jewish community focused on the fight for religious freedom and the victory of the few against the many, Garfunkel says, when religious oppression was a major issue.

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Now it seems the focus is on the Jews' assimilation to Greek culture, she says. Not only did the Greeks oppress the Jews, but many of the Jews gave in, feeling embarrassed about their culture, and took on Greek names, she says. The issue of assimilation - fitting in - is more important in today's society, she says.

Between the years 200 and 500, when the Talmud - the body of Jewish oral law - was written, Jewish leaders wanted to move away from the military aspect of the battle and toward a spiritual meaning. They were uncomfortable playing up the role of the Maccabees, whose leadership was not well respected, and wanted to put more emphasis on God and faith, Garfunkel says.

The Talmud tells how after the victory, Judah and his followers reclaimed the temple from the Greeks, according to the Web site for Temple Sinai in Middletown, N.Y. They could only find one small cruse of oil - enough to last one day - but after they used it to light the temple menorah, it burned for eight days, the site says.

This is the miracle commemorated by the kindling of the Hanukkah lights on the menorah, according to Temple Sinai's site. But the Book of Maccabees, which is not included in the Jewish canon, never mentions the oil.

Garfunkel says the war in Syria prevented the Jews from celebrating Sukkot, an eight-day holiday in the fall. Some people believe they may have actually been celebrating it late when the dedication of the temple occurred. Others believe the eight candles on the menorah during Hanukkah represent the eight spears the Maccabees put in the ground and lit candles atop after their victory.

It's hard to know which interpretations came first, Garfunkel says.

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