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Hanukkah: Festival of miracles great and small

The menorah behind the White House is lighted on Thursday  

In this story:

The miracle

Hanukkah today


(CNN) -- Hanukkah bears the distinction of being the only Jewish observance that has no biblical basis. Instead, the roots of the "festival of lights" lie in the story of the miracle of the oil and the historical victory of the Maccabees over the powerful armies of the Hellenized Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd century B.C.

The story has its beginnings two centuries earlier than that victory, with the conquest of the Near East by Alexander the Great and his Greek armies. On his death, lesser leaders battled for control of the area. Eventually, the land of Israel came under control of the Seleucid dynasty of the Syrian region, ultimately ruled by Antiochus.

In 167 B.C., Antiochus ordered everyone under his rule to follow his path into Hellenization -- assimilation into Greek culture.

For the region's Jews, rituals such as the observance of the Sabbath and circumcision were outlawed. The worship of Greek gods and the sacrifice of pigs replaced traditional Jewish worship in the Temple of Jerusalem.

One day, the Greeks came to a village to erect an altar and commanded the Jews to bring a pig for sacrifice. Mattathias, an old priest, was enraged at seeing a Jew obey this order and killed the man. Mattathias and his five sons engaged the Greeks in battle, then retreated to the mountains and began a guerrilla war.

The miracle

Before his death, Mattathias passed on leadership to his son Judah the Maccabee. Judah Maccabee's forces eventually defeated the armies of Antiochus, liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the Temple from the Greeks.

At the Temple, they found but one small cruse of oil, enough to last one day, but when they lit the Temple menorah with it, the candle burned for eight days -- setting the length for the observance of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The most frequent translation of Hanukkah is "dedication" - that is, the rededication of the Temple after its desecration by the Greeks.

Hanukkah's role evolved over time from a concentration on the so-called miracle of the oil to a military focus on the victory of the Maccabees over the armies of Antiochus.

Hanukkah today

Jews in the United States, influenced by the festival's proximity to the Christian celebration of Christmas, made gift-giving a part of the tradition. Its closeness to Christmas also lent Hanukkah more importance in the Jewish festival cycle than it had outside the United States.

In Israel, the festival's association with the Maccabees' defeat of the Syrian-Greek armies resonates with many who draw comparisons between the suppression of Jewish culture during that time and during more recent times.

The major ritual associated with Hanukkah is the lighting of a Hannukiah, the name for the menorah (candle holder). It is lighted each night of Hanukkah after sundown. One light is added each night until all eight are lit.

The festival has no prescribed meals -- though eating potato pancakes called latkes is a tradition -- but many people have parties or invite friends over to light the candles, eat, exchange gifts and play dreidel, a top bearing Hebrew letters meaning "a great miracle occurred here/there (here in Israel, there elsewhere.)"

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