Jewish families in Altoona and around the world will light a candle to begin
Hanukkah at sunset Saturday.
It is the first day of the eight-day observance associated with the lighting of the candles and in some families, the receiving of gifts by the children.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski)
Eric Charles helps his daughter Renna, 3, light the Hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah that holds eight candles and a starter candle) while his wife, Christi, and daughter Merryn, 5, watch in their Altoona home. Jewish families will begin to celebrate the eight -day holiday at sunset Saturday.
But beyond the candlelight is a deeper meaning as to why Jews remember a conflict that occurred more than 2,000 years ago.
And the struggle itself is not what is considered significant. It is the fact that some Jewish people took a stand and would not compromise their faith, even though some of their Jewish brothers were willing to do so.
"It was a turning point for Jewish history and for world history," said Rabbi Audrey Korotkin, spiritual leader at Temple Beth Israel.
Alexander the Great had conquered Judea in about 350 BC and the people became influence by Greek culture.
Basically, the Seleucids (a Greek military family) had the power, said Rabbi Josh Wohl, spiritual leader of Agudath Achim Congregation. Wohl said some of the Jews, including priests, such as Menelaus, aligned themselves with the Seleucids. He said they were willing to adapt Greek or Hellenistic ways, including allowing a statue of Zeus as well as pigs in the Temple.
Korotkin pointed out that some Jews abided by the Hellenistic ways in order to survive.
Antiochus, leader of the Seleucide Empire outlawed Jewish religious rites and traditions.
Rising up in revolt to Hellenism were Jews known as the Maccabees. They stayed true to the Torah.
Wohl said the group followed the Scriptures so fully that at first they were willing to die rather than engage in battle on the Sabbath.
"It was almost a civil war with Jew versus Jew," he said. "The side that worshipped God prevailed."
The Maccabees won the battle and Judea was free from outside rule for about 80 years from 165 BCE to 63 BCE when it came under Roman rule. It would not be its own country again Israel until 1948.
Wohl said that the struggle was significant in that the Jewish faith was preserved.
He said groups like the Hittites were absorbed into Hellenistic culture and do not exist today.
While the Jews did adapt somewhat to Greek culture, they managed to keep their own identity by putting a Jewish spin on Greek customs, Wohl said.
For example, the four cups of wine that are part of a Passover seder are modeled after a Greek custom that has has been adapted to fit into Jewish traditions, Wohl said.
"You lose your identity if you don't put a spin on it," he said.
Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel compared the Maccabee victory to a David and Goliath situation.
"The people had a strong belief and a strong faith," she said. "They were fighting the people who were trying to take away their faith."
Korotkin said the story resonates across the board, no matter what a person's belief system is.
"We have no chance of surviving, but we do," she said.
"The important thing is not the military victory," Korotkin said. "It was the sustaining of the Jewish faith."
She said the Book of the Maccabees that records the victory is not part of the Jewish Scriptures and it is considered a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar.
She said only hundreds of years after the struggle do the rabbis address Hanukkah in the Talmud (writings on Jewish civil and religious law).
The Talmud does not record the miracle of the lamp in the Temple that burned without oil for eight days after it was rededicated by the Maccabees. She said it could have happened, but never recorded, with the story being passed down orally.
It is the miracle of the oil or the belief that the Temple light stayed lit for eight days until its oil could be replenished that is associated with Hanukkah.
During the observance, families light candles for eight nights which begins this year on Saturday. An additional candle is lit on each of the remaining nights until all eight candles are lit on Dec. 15.
Korotkin said the rabbis' mission throughout history is a spiritual one, and they emphasize the Maccabees belief in Judaism and their willingness to stand up for their faith in the Talmud.
"We may not have been here if that had not happened," she said. "That's the miracle."
If the Greeks had assimilated the Jews into paganism, there would have been no Jewish Temple and no rabbis to preach during the decades before Judea came under Roman rule, she said.
Bill Wallen, executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, also stressed that the story of Hanukkah is about maintaining faith in difficult times.
He said the real focus of the story is that Judaism survived and thrived in a Greek culture that was trying to snuff it out.
He also related to an earlier time in Judaism when Joseph was taken to Egypt, yet he maintained his faith in a different culture.
Wallen said in the same way, even in America where Jews only make up a small portion of the population, the people continue to keep their faith alive.