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The ingredients of Hanukkah, condensed

by Brian Clarey

Hanukkah is about bravery.

The story comes from the Book of Maccabees.

In 164 BC, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, a successor to Alexander the Great, ruled over the lands that are now Syria, Egypt and Israel from faraway Damascus. But under Alexander the people held a large degree of religious autonomy. Antiochus was much less tolerant, particularly of the Jews.

His plan was to assimilate the Jews into Hellenistic culture, declaring their old religion illegal and systematically desecrating all of their institutions. He placed Hellenistic priests in synagogues. He erected shrines to Zeus on Jewish holy ground. He sacrificed pigs on the altars, desecrating the temples with the cloven-hoofed animals.

‘“Worse than that, the statue of Zeus in the temple looked just like Antiochus,’” says Rabbi Andy Koren from Temple Emanuel in Greensboro. ‘“We have a word for that in Hebrew: chutzpah.’”

The Jews, no strangers to persecution even way back in 167 BC, resisted and persevered.

Two groups arose in response to Antiochus: the Chasidim, who fought on religious grounds, and the Maccabees, formed by Judah Maccabee and his four brothers, sons of Mattathias the Hasmonean, who fought from more of a nationalist perspective. These two groups, all Jews, united in the face of the invading Greek army. The Greek forces were at the height of their power, but this smaller band of defenders managed to prevail over the invading forces, driving them from the land.

‘“Their tactics are still studied today at West Point,’” the Rabbi says. ‘“They would ambush and attack the larger forces and then run afterwards. Hanukkah is a time of tremendous Jewish pride.’”

But defeating the Greeks was not the miracle of Hannukah.

Hanukkah is about a miracle.

‘“We had a military victory,’” the rabbi says. ‘“[To celebrate] we could walk around, put on body armor, but instead we concentrated on the spiritual side.’”

After the Greeks had been ousted it was time to put Jerusalem back together. The temple, in particular, needed to be cleansed of the indignities thrust upon it by the Greeks. They removed the statues and symbols and erected a new altar in place of the one that had been desecrated.

But in order for the temple to remain holy, the menorah at the head needed to burn day and night, without interruption and fueled only by ritually purified olive oils, held in casks that bore the seal of the high priest. The invading Greeks had left only one container of the holy oil, enough for a single day and night, and it would take eight days to prepare a fresh supply of the fuel.

If the flame were to go out, the holy temple would be just another building in the ravaged city.

The miracle of Hanukkah was that the oil burned brightly for eight days, long enough for the supply to be renewed and the temple to remain sacred (until it was destroyed by the Romans about 200 years later, but that’s another story). And oil plays a significant part in the way Hannukah is celebrated today.

Hanukkah is about oil

Like in any celebration, food plays a large part of the modern Hanukkah festivities. During the festival of lights, Jewish families partake in latkes, or potato pancakes, doughnuts, sometimes filled with jellies or jams, and fritters. These foods are fried in oil, symbolic of the miracle that happened so long ago.

And the oil ties into Judaism and study of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible and the basis for Judaic scripture, as well. For oil, as they say, cannot be eaten by itself and is not necessary for cooking or for our daily existence. But cooking with oil does something to the food ‘— latkes become crispy and delicately browned when fried in oil and doughnuts’… well doughnuts would not be doughnuts unless they were fried. Oil adds pleasure to the foods cooked in it.

‘“It’s important that we have a little zest, a little spice in our lives,’” the rabbi says.

The parallel is that as oil adds something to the food, so does study of the Torah enrich life, though neither are necessary for living.

Oil is also used to illuminate, something study of the Torah can do as well.

In the Sephardic Jewish tradition, dairy foods like cheeses, sour cream and even ice cream play a part of the Hanukkah celebration. This has a basis in scripture as well, from the story of the Jewish heroine Yehudit who, when her village was under siege by the Syrians, fed the Syrian commander cheese and wine until he passed out drunk on the floor, where she beheaded him, Old-Testament style.

To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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