History and Customs
Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light, is an eight day celebration of the re-dedication of the Jewish holy temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC. The festival lasts for eight days and nights. Since its date is set by the Jewish calendar it could fall anywhere between late November and late December.
In 167 BC Antiochus IV looted the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and stopped all religious services there. He also ordered that a statue of Zeus be placed upon the altar within the temple and that pigs, which are considered unholy by Jews, be sacrificed upon this altar. These actions created a large-scale revolt against the Roman authority led by Mattathias, a Jewish priest and his 5 sons. This is known as the Maccabee revolt.
After the Maccabee revolt ended the temple was reclaimed and restored. Judah, who was the head of the revolt, ordered that the temple be cleansed before it was rededicated. According to tradition, there was only enough oil to light the lamp inside the temple for 1 day. However the lamp remained lit for eight consecutive days until new oil was acquired, thereby marking the 8 days of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is celebrated by a series of candle-lighting rituals every night for the duration of the festival. A special candlestick called a menorah is used during this occasion. The menorah has slots for nine candles, one for every day of the feast and an extra one called a shamash. Since tradition states that light from the menorah candles cannot be taken, the shamash is lit first and then used to light the other candles on the menorah. The menorah is not lit for illumination purposes but as a mark to remind people of the miracle of the Hanukkah. This is why menorahs are placed where a passerby may look into the house and ‘remember’.
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