The Jewish festival of Hanukah, which starts tomorrow night, is only famous because it falls round about the same time as Christmas. In religious terms it’s a minor festival; in 21st century cultural terms it is possibly the best known of Jewish holidays.
Hanukah celebrates a successful revolt in 165 BC by a bunch of guerrillas led by Judah ‘the Hammer’ against the Greek empire. Judah wrests back control of Jerusalem and rededicates the Jewish temple, which the Greeks had defiled.
That’s the history. About 500 years after the event a Jewish legend emerged that, even though the rebels were only able to find a smidgeon of oil in the temple, the holy lamps miraculously burned for a full eight days, until fresh oil could be procured.
It’s not an original story, Elisha did something similar with oil several centuries before. But it’s a nice story. Because of it Jews everywhere light candles for eight days in the dark of winter, brightening the place up. The legend of the oil turns the sombre commemoration of a military victory into a cheerful occasion. And, since Hannukah roughly coincides with Christmas, Jewish kids can get presents like everyone else. It’s a nice story. But it ain’t history. Continue reading