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The dual meaning of Chanukah

Chanukah, known as a ‘festival of lights’, is not mentioned in the Torah because the events it commemorates took place after biblical times. Yet it has become one of the most popular Jewish holidays, bringing fun and games, fried and sweet treats, candlelighting and positivity.

What event does Chanukah celebrate?

The holiday celebrates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in 164 BCE after two miracles happened: firstly, the victory of the Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, over the much larger forces of the Syrian Seleucids. Their king, Antiochus IV, had ordered an invasion of Judea and desecration of the Temple as part of his mission to conquer and hellenize other peoples. After three years of fighting, the Maccabee-led Jews won the war and the right to retain their heritage, which was miraculous on its own. But wait… there’s more.

The story goes that when Judah the Maccabee entered the desecrated Temple to clean and fix it up, he found only a small jar containing a day’s worth of oil to light the menorah. Amazingly, the oil kept going for eight days. Jews around the world remember that miracle by lighting candles eight evenings in a row.

What does Chanukah mean?

The word Chanukah means ‘dedication’, which in a religious context, means the act of consecrating or setting aside an item or a building for a sacred use. After the Temple was restored, Judah arranged for priests to erect a new altar and dedicate it for worship.

However, Jews of today may find even more relevance in the secular meaning of ‘dedication’: devoting oneself to an activity, identity, or cause. Synonyms for dedication include commitment, loyalty, and perseverance. Many people are finding themselves reaffirming their connection to their Jewish heritage and celebrating the freedom to pass on that heritage. Chanukah is really a story about those who stayed true to themselves during the toughest of times. For many people lighting Chanukah candles in 2023, this definition of dedication will have added significance.

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