In 169 BCE in Eretz Yisrael, during the period of the second Beit Hamikdash Antiochus, the king of Greece breached the walls of Jerusalem, desecrated the Beit Hamikdash, the holy temple, and killed as well as sold to slavery thousands of Jews. Shortly thereafter, Antiochus passed laws forbidding Jews to practice the Mitzvot and to live a life of Torah. As a result, many Jews were killed, refusing to give up the valuable Torah.
When the Greek army arrived in Modiin, the Greeks commanded Maityahu the Kohen, a major leader amongst the Jewish people, to worship idolatry. Mattiyahu not only refused to listen to the command of the Greek officer, rather he stood up and in place of being killed by the Greek officer, but he himself also killed the officer. This act of bravery started the begging of a revolt of the Jews against the Greeks. This revolt was not only in order to gain physical freedom, rather it was a revolt in which the main focus was to gain spiritual freedom of worshipping G-d and living a life of Torah. Matityahu’s son, Yehudah, gathered together a Jewish army and led the revolt against the Greeks for about two years. Miraculously, after many harsh battles, the small and inexperienced Jewish army overcame all odds and forced the enormous Greek army to retreat. After approximately two years of war, the Jewish army regained control of Jerusalem, marking the first time since the time of the first Beit Hamikdash that there was Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem and over the land of Israel. On the 25th day of the month of Kislev, the Jewish people began to purify and re-inaugurate the Beit Hamikdash which was previously desecrated by the Greeks. As a result of the victory, the Jewish nation was once again able to learn Torah, and live a life of spirituality and not the only physicality. Torah study and Torah ideals, which light up the world with meaning and Godliness, began once again to flourish amongst Am Yisrael. The next year on the 25th of the month of Kislev, the Jewish sages proclaimed these days, in which the previous year the Menorah miraculously burned for 8 days, to be celebrated as the Holiday of Chanukah, in which we sing praise and giving thanks to Hashem, for all of the miracles which Hashem performs for us.
What does the word “Chanukah” mean?
Chanukah, in English, literally means “Inauguration”. Due to the fact that the Beit Hamikdash was desecrated by the Greeks, when the Jewish people won the battle over Jerusalem, they rededicated/ inaugurated the Beit Hamikdash. It was then in which the miracle of the Pach Hashemen (jug of oil) occurred. The first miracle was that despite the fact that the Greeks desecrated all of the oils of the Beit Hamikdash, a single jug of pure and sanctified oil was found untouched. Upon finding the small jug, which contained only enough oil to light the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash for 1 day, they lit the Menorah and miraculously, the Menorah stayed lit for eight days.
An additional meaning of the word Chanukah- “chanu bkaf hey”- “they rested on the 25th (of the month of Kislev)”. The twenty-fifth day of the month “Kislev” (approximately 165 BCE), is the day upon which the Jewish people won the battle over Jerusalem against the Greek army, and rested from the battle.
Each of the eight nights of Chanukah, we light candles to commemorate the miracle of the Kad Hasehmen Zayit Zach that was found by the chasmonaim and was used to light the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash upon the reconquering of Jerusalem.
The minimum amount of candles that must be lit per household is a single candle per home. However, in order to show a love for the mitzvah, the custom has become to light the same number of candles as the night of Chanukah. For example, on the first night one candle is lit, on the second night 2 candles, and so on throughout the eight nights.
Placement of the Chanukiyah:
The Chnukiyah is placed in a place where most people passing by will see the candles. There are different customs as to whether to place the chanuikyah inside one’s house or outside. Those who light inside should place the chanukiyah by a window facing the street. If one lives in an apartment, there are different opinions as to where to light: some say by the entrance of the apartment building, some say by the window (it is suggested to ask your local Orthodox Rabbi where the preferred placement is in each case).
In Eretz Yisrael, the custom is to light the chanukiyah outside of the home. One must make sure, however, that the wind does not blow out the Chanukah candles, so it is suggested to put the Chanukiyah in an enclosed glass box.
Setting up the Chanukiyah:
On the first night, one candle is placed on the furthermost right side on the chanukiyah, plus the Shamash (the candle which is used in order to light the Chanukah candles). Each night starting from the right side and moving to the left, one sets up the number of candles in accordance with the night of Chanukah. (When lighting the candles, however, one light from left to right, in order to start from the newest candles which are placed.) One must make sure when setting up the candles to place enough oil (or wax) in the chanukiyah so that the candles will burn at least one half-hour past (shkiyah/ tzeit hachovaim?).
Brachachot and Lighting:
Each night, before lighting the Chanukah candles, one first recites the brachot of lighting the Chanukah candles and only then begins to light. The brachot are recited, and (preferably) using the Shamash, one lights the candles from right to left. Upon finishing the lighting, it is customary to sing “Hanerot Hallalu” and “Maoz Tzur”
- Learning Torah to commemorate and live the spiritual victory over the Greeks.
- Eating fried foods, like latkes and donuts to commemorate the miracle of the oil.
- Playing Dreidel to commemorate those who were leaning Torah which as mentioned was against the Greek law, and when the Greeks came to see what was going on- the children stopped learning Torah and pulled out their Dreidels to make believe that they were merely playing with one another.
Lessons and Ideas about Chanukah:
It is no coincidence that Chanukah falls out every year in the winter, in the time of year in which the days are short and the nights are long, in which there is much more darkness than light. The Channukah candles which we light fill up the world with light. We are announcing to the world, that even in the times of darkness there is a light to found, and if there is not light found, then it is our responsibility to bring light to the darkest of times.
The Greek entire focus was on the physical world. They saw nothing beyond the physical body and therefore found physical appearance and strength to be the most important aspect of life. The Torah however, teaches us that this world is not merely what the physical eye can see. The world is filled with spirituality, with Godly ideas. The miracle of Chanukah was not only a physical victory but also (and perhaps even more importantly), a spiritual victory. It is important, therefore, that our celebration and commemoration of Chanukah is not merely a celebration by means of physicality like parties and food, rather we must commemorate the miracle of Chanukah by lighting up the world with a light of Torah and Mitzvot.
When we light the Chanukah candles, we are filling this world with light, shedding light on a world that has much darkness, bringing spirituality to a world of physicality. We are counteracting the Greek culture, which filled the world with darkness, which tried to take all of the spiritualty out of the world, and claimed that everything that you see is everything there is in this world. We are inspiring ourselves and giving hope that even in times of complete darkness – there is a light. Lighting חנוכה candles enable ourselves to stay strong throughout the darkest times that we encounter, and teaches us that even in the darkest times, there is a light.