Tuesday , 15 October 2019

Belief Matters…or Not? Hanukkah: A Festival of Freedom from Oppression


From the Hanukkah Project Gallery 2010


In this current climate of unrest, civil war and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from their native land (in this case Syria) and a flow of thousands of refugees to many areas of Europe, our thoughts turn to the people who have had to flee from oppression, leaving behind all their possessions and even some members of their families. Some countries have been very generous and have taken in some of the thousands of refugees whilst others are gathered into small pockets of different countries, huddled together in unbearable conditions with winter coming on. LGBTQI Refugees are at risk of being tortured, persecuted and murdered by members of Da’esh if they remain in Syria. Many have already suffered at the hands of Da’esh and have fled their homeland to find a safe country in which to live. Scotland is such a country where we are positive to LGBTQI refugees and welcome them into our midst to make their homes.

Let us go back to 167 BCE to the Middle East, to Jerusalem, a city which had been beleaguered by occupation since 175 BCE. The Hellenists (Seleucids), under the cruel regime of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, had taken possession of Jerusalem imposing their various customs on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, including the worship of their Hellenist gods and forbidding the worship of the Jewish God and all Jewish religious practices. The worst aspect of this was the desecration and defilement of the Temple in Jerusalem where they sacrificed a pig on the sacred altar and forced the worship of their gods in the Temple itself.

This went on for several years until a Hasmonean priestly family, the Maccabees, instigated a revolt against the Hellenistic oppressors. The father was Mattathias who was a priest of the Temple and had several sons. He and his sons started the revolt but Mattathias died in 166 BCE so the revolt itself against the Seleucids was led by his third son, Judah the Maccabee, also known as Judas Maccabaeus or “Judah the Hammer”. His story may be seen in the First Book of the Maccabees which tells the story of his valour and bravery. He had military experience which made him a suitable candidate as the leader of the revolt.

Judah led and won several smaller battles in the years running up to his major battle. These smaller ones were more in the style of guerrilla warfare against small groups of Seleucid insurgents rather than with the main force of the army and which unsettled the enemy forces, destabilising them. This was a deliberate strategy which eventually led to his engagement with a larger force and his best victory was at the Battle of Emmaus when he defeated an army led by two Seleucid generals and which had been despatched by Lysias to destroy Judah and his guerrilla army. Judah defeated him and he was forced to retreat to the coast where he decided to assemble a larger army with which he intended to march into Judaea.

After several years of defeating many foes Judah and the Maccabees marched into Jerusalem and drove out the Seleucid enemy. Judah drove the enemy out of the Temple which then had to be purified from the defilement which had been perpetrated. After the Temple had been defiled it had to be thoroughly cleansed and re-dedicated before it could be used for worship. Judah then re-dedicated the Temple in order that the Jewish religious practices and ceremonies could be restored.

Several traditions surround the eight-day celebration and the kindling of lights. The most popular tradition tells the story that, upon entering the Temple, the Judaeans found that the supply of oil used for the lighting of its golden candelabrum had also been defiled. Only one vial with an unbroken seal could be found. Although it was sufficient for only one day, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days enabling the candelabrum to be lit each night and giving time for a new supply of oil for the Temple to be rededicated.

A Macedonian Hanukkiah

The Festival of Hanukkah commemorates the renewal and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 165 BCE by Judas Maccabaeus, three years to the day after it had been profaned. It has also come to represent the freeing of the Jewish people from the oppression of the Hellenist (Seleucid) forces and being crushed under the heel of a despot.

Lights are kindled for each of the successive eight days of the festival on a special candelabrum called a Hanukkiah (this is a nine-branched candelabrum as opposed to the normal seven-branched menorah.

The ninth candle is the shamash or “servant or attendant” candle from which the other eight are lit in turn on each of the eight nights. In addition special prayers are said to commemorate the day.

Other customs which are followed today are eating potato pancakes (latkes), doughnuts and anything deep fried (in remembrance of the oil used), a game of spinning the dreidel which is a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter stamped on each of the four sides and giving children coins – usually chocolate coins covered with gold foil called gelt.

“Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication.”

This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on 7th December.

In many Jewish communities a party is held at which everyone takes their own Hanukkiah which are all lit at the start of the party and the prayers for Hanukkah are said (appropriate for the night upon which the party is held).

Since 1970, in many places all over the world, a tradition was started by the Chabad Hassidic Jews of the public lighting of a giant Hanukkiah in a prominent place in towns and cities. This has taken place in Edinburgh for the last few years and is open to all Jews whether or not they are religious Jews. It is followed by a celebration afterwards.

Last year members of the Jewish Community in Edinburgh presented a special Hanukkiah to the Provost of Edinburgh City and a formal lighting took place. This is also taking place this year.

At this time of the year we will be remembering all those refugees who have fled their native lands and are seeing sanctuary in Europe, many of them in Scotland. We welcome them into our midst and hope they will find a peaceful home amongst us.

About Rebekah Gronowski

Rebekah Gronowski
Rebekah is a Jewish campaigner for LGBTI rights, people with disabilities and other Human Rights issues, based in East Lothian. She has been a leading member at Sukkat Shalom, Edinburgh's Liberal Jewish Community, having been one of the founding members in the Community's early days. Rebekah is also member of 'Inclusion Scotland', an organisation for and run by people with disabilities. Co-Founder of the Scottish Rainbow Covenant for LGBT Jews in Scotland and a member of Rabbis for Human Rights, promoting peace and understanding between Palestinians and Jews. She is an Independent Interfaith Rabbi and Spiritual Minister, and was ordained in 2012. Rebekah has been very involved in Interfaith issues and has a particular interest in Ancient Near Eastern Religions and Earth Traditions.

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