Demystifying the Hanukkah Story, with Rabbi Laytner

Written by Hannah Crivello
December 11, 2014

One of the most visible holidays from within the Jewish community is that of Hanukkah. From holiday cards to miniature menorahs, children?s books, and artful dreidles, we find evidence of the holiday?s presence and importance all around us. Rabbi Anson Laytner, the school's Interreligious Initiative program manager, sat down with us this past month to help demystify the Hanukkah story, and debunk some of the myths that are often told.?

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"Like so many stories told to children, the Hanukkah story we tell is inaccurate and greatly oversimplified, never mind that fact that, as a myth, it works really well.

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In the third century BCE, Alexander the Great exploded onto the world scene. By age 30 he had created one of the largest empires the ancient world had ever seen. Yudaea (Judea) was incorporated into his empire, and Jews suddenly found themselves exposed to all the splendor of Hellenistic culture, some of which threatened the traditional Jewish way of life.

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Like American culture in the world today, the attraction to Hellenistic culture among the Jewish elite was strong and they began to learn Greek language, study Greek philosophy and play sports.? Many took Greek names. Some men even tried to have their circumcisions reversed so that they could look Greek in the gym.?

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While the urban elite was choosing this way of life, Jews in the less urban areas of Yudaea remained true to the traditional way of life and this resulted in an intra-Jewish conflict.? The elite?s desire to modernize Jewish thought and practice and bring it more in line with Hellenistic norms clashed with the values of town and country Jews and a low-grade civil war broke out.? When Antiochus Epiphanes ascended to the throne, his desire to unite his empire under the banner of Hellenistic culture coincided with the objectives of the Yudaean elite and a campaign was launched to eradicate Jewish belief and practice.? ?The crowning blow was the setting up of altars to Greek gods throughout the Land and, in Jerusalem, in the Holy Temple itself, an idol was erected where pigs were sacrificed daily to the Emperor/Greek gods.

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In 166 BCE the smoldering tensions erupted into open conflict when Matityahu and his five sons ? ?the Maccabees? ? began an armed rebellion. The Hellenized Jews brought in the forces of their Greek masters as reinforcements and the Emperor sent a massive army of 50,000 men to be deployed against the Jews. The Maccabees were able to patch together a guerilla army of a mere 6,000 men.? And yet, despite these odds, the Maccabees won.? They entered Jerusalem, and cleansed and rededicated the Temple.? Since the eight-day holiday of Sukkot had not been able to be observed because the Temple had been desecrated, the Maccabees now decreed that Jews should celebrate a second Sukkot in the month of Kislev?and this holiday of dedication, Hanukkah, has been observed for eight days ever since.

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Down through the ages, the holiday has meant different things to different communities of Jews but for the rabbis of old, anxious to find a spiritual message in a military victory, the tale of the miracle of the oil sufficed.? The legendary cruse of oil that lasted eight days showed that God was present in their struggle and in their victory.? For the rabbis, the Maccabees? victory had nothing to do with military skill (or the fact that the rising power of Rome weighed in on their side). Hanukah represented a spiritual victory in which the Spirit won over the sword.? Thus the ?slogan? of the holiday comes from the prophet Zechariah:? ?Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit? and the primary way Jews celebrate the Spirit is by lighting candles on a special candelabra called a ?menorah?, or more correctly a ?hanukkiyah,? starting with one light on the first night and increasing by one on each subsequent evening until the light of all eight candles (and the ninth ?starter? candle) fill the room and hearts with a glow that one might even call divine.?

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This year, the Jewish Year 5775, Hanukkah is celebrated worldwide on the evening of Tuesday, December 16th through the evening of Wednesday, December 24th. Seattle University faculty, staff, and students celebrated Hanukkah together this past week, after the campus tree lighting. To wish someone a Happy Hanukkah, you might say ?Hanukkah Sameach!? (Happy Hanukkah) or simply ?Chag Sameach!? (Happy Holiday). Or if you want to show off your Hebrew skills, say ?Chag Urim Sameach!? (urim means ?lights?) See:?Source.???

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Hanukkah Sameach to you all!