What is Hanukkah? It’s a miraculous holiday of lights. The menorah lights that brighten up the winter darkness represent the light of God breaking through the darkness of despair to encourage people long ago. Hanukkah commemorates a time when God rewarded the Hebrew people’s faithfulness under pressure with a miracle called the "miracle of the oil." Here’s the story of the Hanukkah miracle:
The Hanukkah story begins with soldiers from Syria and Greece seizing the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 168 BC. The soldiers, who worshiped the god Zeus instead of the God of the Torah that the Hebrew people worshiped, defiled the temple by holding worship services in Zeus’ honor there, as well as by engaging in practices (like sacrificing swine) that were detestable in Judaism.
By the next year, the emperor Antiochus Epiphanes declared that anyone caught practicing Judaism would be killed, and that all Jewish people must worship Greek gods or be punished with death. He ordered his soldiers to try to force the Hebrew people to leave their faith behind and follow his orders instead. The Hebrew people wanted to remain faithful to their God at all costs, so they continued to follow the Torah’s principles even if doing so cost them their lives, and they mounted a resistance effort to try to win their religious freedom.
The group of Hebrew people who fought for the right to practice their Jewish faith were known as the Maccabees. The First Book of Maccabees, which is part of the Jewish and Christian Apocrypha (non-canonized scriptures), records the story of the struggle. In 1 Maccabees 3:19, the Maccabean troops’ commander Judas Maccabeus tells his small army not to be concerned about the difference in size between them and the large opposing army, because: “It is not on the size of the army that victory in battle depends, but strength comes from heaven.”
Eventually, in 164 BC, the Maccabees triumphed over the Syrian and Greek soldiers, and took back the Jerusalem temple for the Hebrew people.
The Hebrews needed to purify the defiled temple through a ritual that involved burning candles in a menorah for eight days (to represent the different parts of knowledge and creation), and after that, they could re-dedicate it to God. But there was a major problem: Just one cruet of oil was left in the temple, which would only keep the candles burning for one day before running out.
Determined to remain faithful despite their circumstances, the Hebrew people went ahead with their purification ceremony and trusted God to provide the help they needed. Then, believers say, God miraculously made the small amount of oil burn for the full eight days so the Hebrew people could dedicate the temple again.
The text of 1 Maccabees 3:55-56 records: “All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise.”
Jewish people have celebrated that miracle ever since with the eight-day festival of praise and gratitude to God called “Hanukkah,” which means “dedication” in Hebrew.
Today, Jewish believers celebrate the miracle of the oil on Hanukkah by lighting menorahs in their homes and saying prayers for eight consecutive nights. They also traditionally eat foods that have been cooked in oil, such as doughnuts and potato pancakes. Children often play with a four-sided top called a dreidel on Hanukkah nights. Each side of a dreidel displays one of four Hebrew letters that form the acronym for the Hebrew phrase “Nes gadol haya sham” which means, "A great miracle happened there.”