Thanks to a courageous guerrilla fighter nicknamed "Hammer," Jews will begin an eight-day observance at sundown Tuesday that celebrates both a victory for religious freedom and a legendary miracle.
Known as Hanukkah, the holiday marks a military victory more than 2,000 years ago by a band of Jewish rebels. They defeated occupying Syrian troops and regained control of the Temple of Jerusalem, which had been desecrated with Greek idols.
Hanukkah also commemorates the miracle of the lamp oil, a one-day supply that, according to the legend, burned for eight days in the menorah, the sacred lamp, in the newly liberated temple.
The guerrilla war was initiated by Mattathias, a priest, who dared to resist efforts by Syrian King Antiochus IV to prohibit the practice of Judaism and to assimilate the Jews into a Greek culture.
Mattathias touched off the rebellion in 168 B.C. when he killed a Greek garrison commander. A year later, as he lay dying of old age, Mattathias picked the third of his five sons, Judah, who was known for his military skills, to take over leadership of the rebellion.
Because Judah was nicknamed Maccabee, which meant "Hammer," his followers became known as the "Maccabees." By 165 B.C., they had won so many skirmishes that they met little resistance when they reached Jerusalem and easily recaptured the temple and destroyed the Greek idols.
Rabbi Ronne Friedman of Temple Beth Zion describes Hanukkah, which was established by Judah Maccabee, as "the first recorded victory for religious freedom."
It most likely was celebrated for eight days as a late observance of Sukkot, a fall harvest festival, he said. "They had been unable to celebrate Sukkot that year because they were at war."
Ironically, Jews regard the story about the miracle of the oil as a legend because it does not appear in the Hebrew scriptures. However, the story is contained in the Book of Maccabees in the some editions of the Old Testament.
Rabbi Friedman said the Talmud, the book of Jewish law, urges Jews to make a visible display of their menorahs, the eight-branch candle holders that have become familiar symbols of Hanukkah.
"They should be placed as a testimony of faith where they can be seen by passers-by," he said.
Jews light a single candle on the first night of Hanukkah and light an additional one each evening so that on the eighth night all of the candles are burning.
Because Hanukkah begins just two days before Christmas this year, some neighborhoods may sparkle with both Hanukkah and Christmas lights for several days.
Rabbi Friedman stressed that because it is traditional to give gifts of money, or "gelt," to children for Hanukkah and because Christmas and Hanukkah fall about the same time, many non-Jews and even Jews in the United States erroneously link the two holidays.
"In American culture, Hanukkah has become more of a gift-giving holiday, but it is not Jews celebrating Christmas," he said. "It is Jews borrowing an element from the celebration of Christmas and using it to celebrate Hanukkah."
"We have to some degree fallen prey, as have Christians, to the material aspect of the holiday," Rabbi Friedman said.
On the other hand, he feels that practices and traditions that reinforce Jewish identity are "a good thing."
As with Christmas, Hanukkah has evolved into a holiday for children, but Rabbi Friedman says the result is positive.
Although it is considered a minor holiday, he has found that "Jewish children know the details of Hanukkah better than any other Jewish holiday."