Millions of Jews around the world celebrated the start of the Jewish “festival of lights,” or Hanukkah, on Sunday night.
The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple after its desecration by the Seleucid Greek king Antiochus in 167 BCE.
But the holiday means many things to many different people.
Antiochus outlawed Jewish ritual, desecrated Jewish holy places and sought to strip the treasury of the Jewish community to serve his imperial ambitions. For some Jews, the successful rebellion led by the Jewish priestly Hasmonean family against this rapacious Seleucid imperialism serves as a universal symbol of freedom from oppression, and even of religious tolerance.
But the Hasmonean kingdom that ruled in the wake of the rebellion (until its fall under Roman rule) saw periods of forced conversions of non-Jews, among other less-than-liberal policies.
For some Jews, the rebels, known collectively as the Maccabees, are symbols not of universalism, but of Jewish pride, strength and self-reliance, especially in light of the oppressive, bloody Jewish experience of the 20th century.
For still others, the holiday is simply the celebration of light during the darkest days of the year. Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which occurs around the month of December, when the days are shortest and the nights longest. The most famous miracle of the holiday is one of light, where the Temple’s candelabrum miraculously burned for eight days despite consuming only one day’s worth of oil.
This year, the holiday stretches from the evening of December 6 to the evening of December 14.
On the first night, Jews from around the world, from Boston to Jerusalem to Budapest, and even (or perhaps especially) in terror-struck Paris, lit the first candle and sang traditional Hanukkah songs, including the one that proclaims, “We have come to banish darkness/In our hands, light and fire/Each of us is a small light/But together, we are a mighty one!”