The Jewish tradition of Hanukkah begins at sundown tonight, with festivities planned across the globe.
Here in the United States, the National Menorah will be lit near the White House at 4:00 p.m., when the sun is expected to set. According to the National Menorah Council, this particular menorah is the largest in the world and “is the essence of the celebration – to proclaim and celebrate the miracle of Chanukah (sic) – The Festival of Lights in the most public manner possible.”
This celebration is traced back to 165 BCE, after a lengthy battle for freedom. In 168 BCE, Antiochus IV was ruler, and under his leadership, the historic Temple was robbed and hundreds of Jews massacred. Judaism itself was prohibited by the Seleucid government. Antiochus IV died in 166 BCE, and Judah Maccabees rose to power.
His brother Judas led an uprising in 165 BCE, which successfully overthrew the Seleucid authorities and reclaimed the Holy Temple. It is this reclamation and re-dedication that is celebrated during Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is Hebrew for “to dedicate” and marks the sacred time of re-dedication. Rabbinic tradition tells the story of the Maccabees and their leadership and uprising, which lead to a time of prosperity for the Jewish people.
According to tradition, the Maccabees searched for sacred oil to dedicate the Temple but only found one small jar that was only supposed to be enough for one night. Instead, the oil lasted for eight nights, leading to the eight-night celebration of Hanukkah.
The National Menorah Council, an offshoot of the American Friends of Lubavitch, has led the lighting in Washington for over 25 years.
The organization was founded in the 18th century to bring education to the United States, especially focusing on the belief that “devotion to God should be blended with study and intellectual understanding of truth.”
President Obama lit the White House’s menorah on Dec. 9 at a gathering of politicians and Jewish leaders. Obama told attendees, “Let’s extend a hand to those who are in need, and allow the value of tikkun olam [repairing the world] to guide our work this holiday season.”
He continued, “This is also a time to be grateful for our friendships, both with each other and between our nations. And that includes, of course, our unshakeable support and commitment to the security of the nation of Israel.”