Days are shorter and nights are longer. It's winter. And the shortest day of the year, the midwinter day of the year, is called the winter solstice. 'Tis the season for us to celebrate our respective holidays. For me, that means Hannukah.
Hanukkah has another name, the Festival of Lights, so given because light is one of two essential themes of this mid-winter holiday. The second theme is religious freedom.
On a basic level, lights and Hanukkah make perfect sense. Lights illuminate the darkness and, at this time of year, daylight fades away all too quickly and darkness settles in and reigns. Putting aside the story of the single flask of oil that burned for eight nights, piercing the darkness with light in the cold of midwinter is a logical maneuver.
The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day of the year, occurs when the earth's tilt has the sun the farthest to the south. The closer to the equator you are, the less change takes place in your life from winter months to summer months in terms of total amount of light.
The farther you are from the equator the shorter the days are in winter. In Fairbanks, Alaska the daylight of the winter solstice is a mere 3 hours and 41 minutes long. In New York City the day lasts a whopping 9 hours and 15 minutes, and in Miami, Florida it's an even longer 10 hours and 31 minutes. As you approach the equator the solstice moves closer and closer to the even split of 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness — even during the winter solstice.
Light is both a metaphor and a symbol for Hanukkah. The story begins in 198 BCE when the Syrian Greeks, aka the Selucids, take over the region of Judea and Samaria and throw out the Egyptian Greeks, known as the Ptolemys. A few decades later, in 175 BCE, a new king named Antiochus IV emerges as leader of the Selucid Empire out of Syria.
Antiochus wanted to destroy Judaism. And in 168 BCE the king outlawed the basic tenets of Judaism. According to the edicts he decreed, Jews were not permitted to perform three of their fundamental commandments. The Syrian Greeks forbade the observance of sabbath, the brit milah, known as circumcision, which is performed on the eighth day of life for male babies, and finally, and the ritual announcement of the new moon, signifying the beginning of each month according to the Jewish calendar.
Outlawing sabbath and circumcision are, if you are a Jew hater, understandable. But why the new month? The answer is that the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, unlike the Gregorian calendar which is a solar calendar. It is based on the moon. And without that announcement, the holidays and the structure of Jewish life would fall apart.
To make things worse — as if this was not bad enough — in 167 BCE Antiochus further commanded that pigs be brought into the Temple in Jerusalem and sacrificed on the holy alter where he had already erected a temple to one of his gods, Zeus.
The edicts of Antiochus and the arrogance of the Greeks stimulated the Jews of the region to revolt against the ruling Syrian Greeks. Local Jews banded together under the leadership of a family called the Maccabees, with Judah, one of the sons, as the lead. Syrian Greek culture was pervasive. The revolt targeted those who were Antiochus's representatives and those embraced Greek culture — anyone who sided with Antiochus.
In 164 BCE the Jews successfully defeated the Syrian Greeks who withdrew back to Syria. The victorious Jews re-entered the Temple, cleaned and purified the Temple and rededicated the Temple.
And then they needed to perform the ritual of lighting the Temple menorah. That's where the story of the small supply of oil comes in. The Maccabees could find only one crucible of oil. It was only enough oil for one day. The oil needed the High Priest's stamp of approval for use in the Temple and making fresh oil would take seven days.
The miracle of Hannukah is that the one crucible of oil lasted seven days longer than it should have lasted and the menorah remained lit until the new oil was produced. That is why Jews light candles for eight days – one plus seven.
The second miracle is that the Jews defeated the Syrian Greeks.
Hanukkah is a celebration of Jews fighting for the freedom to worship in the style and tradition of their forefathers. Hanukkah celebrates defeating the pagans who were far more numerous and far better equipped than the Maccabees.
Hanukkah, while undoubtedly a Jewish holiday, should speak to Americans, to the American soul. It should speak to Americans because it is really about spreading the light and regaining freedom.
Today, we are surrounded by pagan influences. Massive elements of modern Western culture proclaim that traditional values and tradition is not for them, that it is, instead to be relegated to the uneducated.
The story of Hanukkah and the history of the United States are more closely aligned. They are the stories of fighting for religious freedom and creating light where there is darkness.
By the way, there is no ancient tradition giving of Hanukkah gifts. Simply, not there. We can all understand how that tradition slipped into the Hanukkah experience.
Whatever you celebrate, however you celebrate, this year as all others, may your holiday be happy.
Micah Halpern is a political and foreign affairs commentator. He founded "The Micah Report" and hosts "Thinking Out Loud with Micah Halpern" a weekly TV program and "My Chopp" a daily radio spot. A dynamic speaker, he specializes in analyzing world events and evaluating their relevance and impact. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern. Read Micah Halpern's Reports — More Here.
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