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An essay donated by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Why Hanukah is for Muslim Jews

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The Arabic term "Muslim" has two meanings:

  • The most common definition refers to a member of the Muslim community, a follower of Islam.
  • A secondary meaning, used here, refers to a person who submits to the will of the One God and follows the teachings of a prophet who has received a book from God.

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Hanukah is for Muslim Jews because Hanukah (Hebrew for Dedication) refers both to:

  • The rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem after it was profaned in 168 BCE by an idol installed in it by the Syrian Greek king Antiochus IV; and

  • The dedication and valor of the Maccabees and all those who joined them in their resistance to the attempt by the ruling powers to force the Jews to abandon their God given religion, and conform to Greek forms of worship and culture. Abandoning circumcision was one example.

Those who resisted were Muslims (Arabic for faithful follows of God's will) and their dedication eventually led to religious freedom and national independence for the Jews living in the Land of Israel. The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the first known attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last. Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity, and the persecution of Muhammad and his followers by the majority of pagan Arabs in Makka.

All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lamp that once lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God; lasts longer than anyone else thinks possible.

The history: In 200 BCE, King Antiochus III of Syria defeated Egypt and made the Land of Israel a part of the Seleucid Empire. King Antiochus III wanting to conciliate his new Jewish subjects guaranteed their right to "live according to their ancestral customs" and to continue to practice their religion in the Temple of Jerusalem. However in 175 BCE, his son Antiochus IV invaded Judea to put in power a pro Syrian high Priest. As the ancient Jewish historian Josephus relates:

"The king came upon the Jews with a great army, took their city by force, slew a great multitude of those that favored Egypt, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also spoiled the temple (erecting an idol in it that looked like himself, and thus) put a stop to the daily offerings (to God) for three years and six months."

The tradition: When the Temple in Jerusalem was looted and services stopped, Judaism was outlawed. In 167 BCE Antiochus IV (who named himself 'Manifest God') ordered an altar to Zeus be erected in the Temple. He banned circumcision and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the Temple. This provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattityahu, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. They became known as HaMakabim (the Hammers). In 166 BCE Mattathias died, and Judah Makabee took his place as leader. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was largely successful. The Temple was liberated and (Hanukah) rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted to celebrate this event.

The oil: Judah Makabee ordered the Temple to be purified, and a new altar to be built in place of the one polluted by pig's blood. According to the Torah, pure olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn day and night throughout the year. However, there was only enough pure oil found to burn for one day, and it would take a week to prepare a fresh supply of pure oil for the menorah. Some said delay the Hanukah of the Temple for a week. Others said kindle the Temple Menorah and pray for it to last until new pure oil could be made. The menorah was lit; and it did not go out prior to the arrival of the new pure oil. An eight-day festival was declared by the rabbis to commemorate this miracle.

The lights: These can be candles or oil lamps. Most Jewish homes have a special candelabrum referred to as a hanukkiah, or an oil lamp holder for Hanukkah, which holds eight lights plus the additional light used to light the others each day. The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not to "light the house within", but rather to "illuminate the house without," so passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday's miracle. Thus, lamps are set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street. Some Ashkenazim (Jews from European Lands) have a separate menorah for each family member (customs vary), whereas most Sephardim (Jews from Muslim Lands) light one for the whole household. Only when there was danger of antisemitic persecution were lamps supposed to be hidden from public view, as was the case in Persia under the rule of the Zoroastrians, or in parts of Europe before and during World War II.

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A modern tale: Aisha,Talyah and their parents were standing just outside their front door, admiring their newly lit Hanukiya, when a power failure occurred. The street lights went out. The house lights went out. It was dark almost everywhere around them. The only lights they could see on the whole block were from the Hanukiya in the window of one house across the street, and from their own Hanukiya on the porch. After a few minuets, several of their neighbors, who did not want to sit in their dark houses, came over to join them.

‚€œIt is a good thing you have those candles.‚€ said one neighbor. ‚€œI am afraid of the dark.‚€

‚€œWhy do you have the menorah outside?‚€ asked another neighbor.

‚€œIt is an old tradition‚€ said Aisha. ‚€œJews are supposed to publicize the miracle of Hanukah to all the people around them.‚€

‚€œYou mean the oil that lasted for eight days.‚€ said the neighbor who knew what a menorah was.

‚€œYes ‚€œ said Aisha, ‚€œThe oil is the symbol of hope and faith. If the Maccabees had not lit the lights in the restored Temple in Jerusalem, because they were afraid the lights would go out the next day, the miracle would not have happened.‚€

‚€œYou mean the miracle of the oil?‚€

‚€œI mean the miracle that lots of times, things that you think will never happen, do happen, if you do not give up. If the Maccabees had not lit the oil lamps, how would they have found out that the oil could last for eight days.‚€ said Aisha.

And her sister Talyah added, ‚€œThat is why we put the Hanukiya outside on the door step.‚€

‚€œAren't you afraid the wind will blow out the lights?‚€ asked the neighbor who was afraid of the dark..

‚€œMost of the time it does on at least one or two evenings.‚€ said Talya. ‚€œThat is why we put another Hanukiya in the window. You should always trust in God, but if you can arrange for back up, you should do it. After all, you should not test God by expecting God to stop the winds every evening for eight days. Other people might need the wind.‚€

‚€œI thought Hanukah was the festival of freedom.‚€ said another neighbor. ‚€œWhat does all this have to do with freedom?‚€

Aisha answered, ‚€œHanuka is a celebration of religious freedom; especially the freedom of all religious minorities to observe their religious practices with equal treatment and respect. But freedom is not only freedom from oppression. It is also freedom to do the right things, and to become a really good loving person. A free person is not free to oppress, hurt or insult other people or their religious' beliefs. Freedom comes from fulfilling your responsibilities to other people, to nature, and to God.‚€

They all stood in the dark talking about the importance of trust in God, hope and religious freedom for all people. Each had something to say and add. They could have gone on and on for a long time but just then the power came on and the lights lit up. The neighbors thanked the Cohen family for all they had learned, and the neighbor who was afraid of the dark said to them, ‚€œI think I will go to Church next Sunday.‚€

In 2012, Hanukah begins on Saturday evening December 8. The date differs somewhat from year to year because it is based on a lunar calendar.

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Other stories by Rabbi Maller are on his web site:

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Originally posted: 2012-DEC-06
Latest update: 2012-DEC-06
Rabbi Allen S. Maller
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