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As the winter solstice approaches and we begin our slow climb back to the light, Jews in Juneau and around the world begin the celebration of Chanukah, the Festival of Light. Chanukah lasts eight days and begins on the eve of the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. Chanukah is the Hebrew word for dedication and refers to the historical basis for the holiday.
Over 2,300 years ago the Syrians, under their Greek king Antiochus IV, ruled Judea. He tried to make the Jews more Hellenistic by prohibiting Jewish rituals and practices, including belief in a monotheistic God. The Jews refused. After three bitter years of fighting, the small Jewish army led by Judah Macabee finally regained the Temple. Some say this was the first struggle for religious freedom and the first miracle of Chanukah. When the Jews were repairing and cleansing the Temple, they brought in the Temple menorahs. They could find only enough sacred oil to burn for one day. The second miracle of Chanukah was that the oil lasted for eight days.
It is not exactly clear how Chanukah was first celebrated. The significance of the number eight would lead us into a much more complicated discussion than there is room for here. However there is some evidence from around 70 BCE (Before Common Era) that pear-shaped oil lamps were lit to commemorate the miracle of the oil during the rededication of the Temple.
Today's Chanukah lamps, called menorahs, take many forms. Each has a place for eight candles or pots of oil and an additional spot for the shahmash or server candle. They are placed in a window so that all that pass by will be able to see the light of the burning candles.
Different customs are part of the Chanukah celebration in different parts of the world. In Eastern Europe, for example, teachers, students and children receive coins (or gelt) when they encourage people to study. In Venice families ride up and down the canals and stop in front of homes lit with a menorah to sing songs. In the Middle East, there are public feasts. In North Africa the seventh night is dedicated to women. Giving gifts is a relatively new practice and is mostly found in America. However, giving food and clothing to the poor is a universal custom. Despite regional differences, Chanukah is a celebration of dedication, religious freedom, miracles and lighting the menorah.
The Chanukah menorah is lit only after darkness falls. The menorah's purpose is to illuminate the darkness of the world. A great Rabbi once remarked, "You cannot chase away darkness with a stick. You have to turn on the light." The way to eliminate darkness to rid the world of ignorance, hatred, negativity and greed is to light the lights of knowledge, generosity, hope and love. Each night of Chanukah we light one more light. With every added light we go from strength to strength. Chanukah reminds us that even in the deepest darkness, hope and the light of knowledge is at hand if we have faith and strive to light one more light.
The lights of the Chanukah menorah are more than just a symbolic reminder of ancient miracles. They are meant to provide inspiration and illumination in our everyday lives. By reflecting upon the miracles of the Chanukah lights, we can see the dimensions of the possibility of miracles in our own life and time. For eight days we are given an opportunity to look both within ourselves and beyond, to sense that there is far more to our existence than only that which we can see and touch around us.
For more than 2,300 years, the lights of Chanukah have burned as a sign of spiritual wisdom the wisdom to know oneself and one's creator and to stand secure in the knowledge of one's own culture and one's own beliefs.
Chava Lee is a member of the Juneau Jewish Community.