Friday, December 11th marked the beginning of Hanukkah, an eight day celebration marking the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago. Antiochus, the Syrian king, had overrun Jerusalem and not only outlawed Judaism, but went a step further and ordered all Jews to worship the Greek god Zeus.
When a Syrian officer told the villagers in Modiin to bow to the Syrian idol and eat the flesh of a pig, the locals revolted. Thus began a three year uprising that ended with the defeat and ouster of the Syrian army from Jerusalem. When the leader of the uprising, Judah Maccabee, retook the temple in that great city, he discovered that it had been desecrated by the occupying army. The victorious Jews wanted to rededicate the temple, but most of the oil for lighting candles had been ruined. They found only enough holy oil to last one day.
But it lasted much longer. The candle burned for a miraculous eight days, long enough for more good oil to be brought to the temple. The dedication and miracle of the oil brought forth the celebration of Hanukkah.
The eight candles of the Hanukiah (plus one – the shammas – to light the rest) signify the eight days that the small amount of oil lasted. Fried food (fried in oil) is popular during Hanukkah for the same reason.
For those of you celebrating the Jewish holiday this year, Happy Hanukkah!
(For a good review of Hanukkah, read the history.com website.)
(Note: Updated Jan 6, 2010 with corrections)