Rabbi Dovid Saks
Chanukah - Its History and Significance
The events of Chanukah took place in the land of Israel during
the period of the second Bais Hamikdash (Holy Temple). The
Jews were under the unyielding rule of the Syrian Greek
monarch Antiochus IV. They were subject to harsh decrees.
Circumcision, the study of Torah, and the observance of Shabbos and holidays were strictly forbidden on penalty of death. In addition, the Greeks defiled and contaminated the Temple, and transformed it into a house of pagan worship. Their goal was to divest the Jews of their faith, observances, and belief in G-d, and to force the Jews to adopt the Greek life-style of pagan worship and self-indulgence.
Matisyahu, head of the distinguished priestly Hasmonean family, had five sons. He led a revolt against the Greek army to regain the Temple and the religious freedom of the Jewish people. Matisyahu appointed his son, Yehudah the Maccabee, to succeed him as leader of the revolt. Under his leadership, though outnumbered by a fierce and powerful Greek army, the Maccabees were miraculously victorious. They then liberated and reclaimed the Bais Hamikdash.
The Temple was thoroughly cleansed of any pagan worship, and normal services resumed. One of the Temple's daily services was the kindling of the Menorah, a seven branch candelabra. Only olive oil which was ritually pure was used for the lights. But during the Greek occupation of the temple all the olive oil was made unfit for the service. After a thorough search, one flask of oil was found that still retained its seal of purity. It contained just enough oil to burn for one day. Miraculously, this small amount of oil continued to burn for eight days—the amount of time necessary to acquire more suitable oil.
In commemoration of the two great miracles—our victory over the Greeks and the oil lasting for eight days, our Sages established the holiday of Chanukah. They instituted the lighting of an oil or candle Menorah for eight days, through which G-d's miracle is commemorated and publicized. They also composed the prayer of “Al Hanissim” and added the “Hallel” prayer to our daily service to praise G-d for directing our victory.
THE NAME “CHANUKAH”
The name Chanukah is derived from the Hebrew word Chanu —they dedicated, and Chaf Hey — the numerical value of twenty-five. The Jews rededicated the Temple on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, in the year 165 B.C.E. The tradition of Chanukah lives on today, 2180 years later.
LIGHTING OF THE MENORAH
This year Chanukah begins Sunday night December 6th
Each weekday evening the Menorah is lit after sunset. One fulfills the Mitzvah by having the candles burn for at least l/2 hour.
On Friday, the Menorah is lit prior to the Shabbos candles. One should use longer candles for the Menorah so that the lights burn for at least one and a half hours. On Saturday night, Havdalla is recited at the conclusion of Shabbat and then the Menorah is lit.
PROCEDURE FOR LIGHTING THE MENORAH
In order to publicize G-d's great miracle, the Menorah is lit in the presence of the entire household and near a window so that it may be seen from the street. Although one Menorah may be lit for the entire family, many have the custom for each family member to light an individual Menorah.
The first night of Chanukah, one candle is lit—the rightmost one when facing the Menorah. One additional candle is lit on each of the following nights.
When lighting the candles, we light from left to right, so that the newer candle is lit first.
On the first night of Chanukah, three blessings are recited before the kindling of the Menorah. On the following nights, two blessings are recited before kindling the Menorah. (The Shechayanu blessing is recited only on the first night.)
Transliterated texts of the blessings can be found below. In the spirit of the joyous occasion, traditional Chanukah songs are sung.
WHY THE 25TH OF KISLEV
While the Jews were in the desert, traveling from Egypt to the Land of Israel, G-d commanded them to construct a Mishkan (Tabernacle) - a large Temple that they were able to dismantle and transport while traveling, and erect when they encamped. On the 25th day of Kislev, less than three months after they
began working, the artisans and skilled workers completed all the components of the Mishkan. G-d told Moshe (Moses) to wait until a later date to erect the Mishkan. G-d assured Moshe that the date that they completed the Mishkan would not be ignored. There would be a time in the future, during the second Temple, that the Jews would rededicate the Temple on the same date that they completed the Mishkan in the desert, the 25th day of Kislev. The date would then be celebrated and commemorated as the Holiday of Chanukah.