Did you know that the word Chanukah doesn’t mean lights, or candles or even holiday? It is a Hebrew word that means dedication. The name describes the rededication of the Temple by the Jewish people in the land of Israel in 165 BCE after it had been defiled by Antiochus, the Greco-Syrian ruler of Jerusalem. The Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, mounted a successful revolt against the invasion of the Hellenizing forces which included laws prohibiting the practice of Judaism. Having won the battle against forced assimilation into Greek culture, the Jews returned to the Temple in Jerusalem to rededicate this sacred space and themselves to the worship of One God. Upon their return they found only one cruse of oil with which to light the iconic seven branched menorah (candelabra). Jewish law however, required the Temple menorah to maintain an everlasting flame, but one cruse of oil would burn for only one day. According to legend, that small amount of oil burned for eight days, allowing just enough time to press more olives and replenish the store of oil for perpetual burning.
On Chanukah, Jews recall the miracle of the everlasting flame by lighting an eight branched menorah over a period of eight days. It is during the darkest season, usually quite close to o the winter solstice, that the Jewish people rededicate themselves to increasing light in our world. It is remarkable how one candle can dispel utter darkness and how one small candle can be used to light an endless number of new flames. Ancient cultures throughout the world have long celebrated this moment of the year through rituals that share overarching themes expressing the victory of light over darkness and the renewal of life over the winter illusion of death.
Coincidentally, this year the first night of Chanukah falls on Dec. 24th, Christmas eve.
While Christmas and Chanukah do share some common themes, the giving of presents on Chanukah was not historically part of the traditional practice of the holiday.
Today, as we celebrate all of our winter festivals, let us consider how we might rededicate our energies. How might we bring more light into our relationships, our communities, our country? May we remember that darkness is a part of a greater cycle that, over time, returns inevitably to light.