History of Chanukah
The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication.” In the 2nd century BCE, during the time of the Second Holy Temple, the Syrian-Greek regime of Antiochus sought to pull Jews away from Judaism, with the hopes of assimilating them into Greek culture. Antiochus outlawed Jewish observance ― including circumcision, Shabbat, and Torah study ― under penalty of death. As well, many Jews ― called Hellenists ― began to assimilate into Greek culture. This began to decay the foundation of Jewish life and practice.
When the Greeks challenged the Jews to sacrifice a pig to a Greek god, a few courageous Jews took to the hills of Judea in open revolt against this threat to Jewish life. Led by Matitiyahu, and later his son Judah the Maccabee, this small band of pious Jews led guerrilla warfare against the Syrian-Greek army.
Antiochus sent thousands of well-armed troops to crush the rebellion, but after three years the Maccabees beat incredible odds and miraculously succeeded in driving the foreigners from their land. The victory was on the scale of Israel defeating the combined super-powers of today. Jewish fighters entered Jerusalem and found the Holy Temple in shambles and desecrated with idols. The Maccabees cleansed the Temple and re-dedicated it on the 25th of Kislev. When it came time to re-light the Menorah, they searched the entire Temple, but found only one jar of pure oil bearing the seal of the High Priest. The group of believers lit the Menorah anyway and was rewarded with a miracle: That small jar of oil burned for eight days, until a new supply of oil could be brought.
From then on, Jews have observed a holiday for eight days, in honor of this historic victory and the miracle of the oil. To publicize the Chanukah miracle, Jews add the special Hallel praises to the Shacharit service, and light a menorah during the eight nights of Chanukah.
Laws & Customs
To publicize which night of Chanukah it is, all eight candles on the menorah should be at the same height ― and preferably in a straight line. Otherwise, the candles may not be easily distin- guishable and may appear like a big torch.
In addition to the eight main lights, the menorah has an extra helper candle called the “Shamash.” As we are forbidden to use the Chanukah lights for any purpose other than “viewing,” any benefit is as if it’s coming from the Shamash.
Since the Shamash does not count as one of the eight regular lights, your menorah should have the Shamash set apart in some way ― either placed higher than the other candles, or off to the side.
What Candles to Light
The most important thing is that that your candles must burn for at least 30 minutes after night- fall. Actually, it is even better to use olive oil, since the miracle of the Maccabees occurred with olive oil. Glass cups containing oil can be placed in the candle holders of any standard menorah.
Where to Light
To best publicize the miracle, the menorah is ideally lit outside the doorway of your house, on the left side when entering. (The mezuzah is on the right side; in this way you are “surrounded by mitzvot.”) In Israel, many people light outside in special glass boxes built for a menorah. The conventional practice today, is to light indoors by a window that faces the public domain. Since the mitzvah occurs at the actual moment of lighting, moving the menorah to a proper place after lighting does not fulfill the mitzvah.
When to Light
The preferable time to light the menorah is at nightfall. It is best to light in the presence of many people, which maximizes the mitzvah of “publicizing the miracle” and adds to the family atmosphere. The menorah can still be lit (with the blessings) late into the night, as long as people are still awake.