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The story of Chanukah is preserved in the books of the First and Second Maccabees. These books are not part of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible, Old Testament), but are part of the Apocrypha (historical and religious material that was not codified as part of the Bible).
Chanukah was instituted by Yehudah Maccabe and his brothers in the year 165 BCE., to be celebrated annually with joy as a memorial of the dedication of the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. (I Macc. iv. 59). After having recovered Jerusalem and the Temple, Judas ordered the latter to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one, and new holy vessels to be made. When the fire had been kindled anew upon the altar and the lamps of the candlestick lit, the dedication of the altar was celebrated for eight days amid sacrifices and songs (I Macc. iv. 36), similarly to Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles (II Macc. x. 6; comp. ib. i. 9), which also lasts for eight days, and at which during the Second Temple (Suk.v. 2-4) the lighting of lamps and torches formed a prominent part. Lights were also kindled in the household, and the popular name of the festival was, therefore, according to Josephus ("Ant." xii. 7, § 7), the "Festival of Lights."
The miracle of Chanukah is referred to in the Talmud, but not in the books of the Maccabees. This holiday marks the defeat of Assyrian forces who had tried to prevent Israel from practicing Judaism. Judah Maccabee and his brothers destroyed the overwhelming forces, and rededicated the Temple. The eight day festival is marked by the kindling of lights with a special Menorah, called a Chanukiah.
A legend recorded in the Talmud says that after the occupiers had been driven from the Temple, the Maccabees went in take down the pagan statues and restore the Temple. They discovered that most of the ritual items had been profaned. They sought ritually purified olive oil to light a Menorah to rededicate the Temple; however they found only enough oil for a single day. They lit this, and went about purifying new oil. Miraculously, that tiny amount of oil burned until new oil could be pressed, eight days. It is for this reason that Jews light a candle each night of the festival.
In the Talmud two customs are presented. It was usual either to display eight lamps on the first night of the festival, and to reduce the number on each successive night, or to begin with one lamp the first night, increasing the number till the eighth night. The followers of Shammai favored the former custom; the followers of Hillel advocated the latter (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 21b). Josephus thinks that the lights were symbolical of the liberty obtained by the Jews on the day of which Chanukah is the celebration.
The Talmudic sources (Meg. eodem; Meg. Ta'an. 23; comp. the different version Pes. R. 2) ascribe the origin of the eight days' festival, with its custom of illuminating the houses, to the miracle said to have occurred at the dedication of the purified Temple. This was that the one small cruse of consecrated oil found unpolluted by the Hasmonean priests when they entered the Temple, it having been sealed and hidden away, lasted for eight days until new oil could be prepared for the lamps of the holy candlestick. A legend similar in character, and obviously older in date, is that alluded to in II Macc. i. 18 et seq., according to which the relighting of the altar-fire by Nehemiah was due to a miracle which occurred on the twenty-fifth of Kislew, and which appears to be given as the reason for the selection of the same date for the rededication of the altar by Judas Maccabeus.
Before the 20th century, this holiday was considered be a relatively minor one. However, with the rise of Christmas as the biggest holiday in the Western world and the establishment of the modern state of Israel, this holiday began to increasingly served both as a celebration of Israel's struggle for survival and more importantly, as a December family gift giving holiday which could be a Jewish substitute for the Christian one.
198 BCE: Armies of the Seleucid King Antiochus III (Antiochus the Great) oust Ptolemy V from Judea and Samaria.
180 BCE: Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) ascends the Seleucid throne.
168 BCE: Under the reign of Antiochus IV, the Temple is looted, Jews are massacred, and Judaism is outlawed.
167 BCE: Antiochus orders an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. Mattathias, and his five sons John, Simon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah lead a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah becomes known as Judah Maccabe (Judah The Hammer).
166 BCE: Mattathias dies, and Judah takes his place as leader. The Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom begins; It lasts until 63 BCE
165 BCE: The Jewish revolt against Syria is successful. The Temple is liberated and rededicated (Chanukah).
142 BCE: Establishment of the Second Jewish Commonwealth. The Syrians recognize Jewish autonomy. The Syrians have a formal overlordship, which the Hasmoneans acknowledged. This inaugurates a period of great geographical expansion, population growth, and religious, cultural and social development.
139 BCE: The Roman Senate recognizes Jewish autonomy.
130 BCE: Syrians, under Antiochus VII, besiege Jerusalem, but withdraw. 131 Antiochus VII dies. Israel throws off Syrian rule completely
96 BCE: An eight year civil war begins.
83 BCE: Consolidation of the Kingdom in territory east of the Jordan River.
63 BCE: The Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom comes to an end due to rivalry between the brothers Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, both of whom appeal to Rome to step in and settle the power struggle on their behalf. Rome moves in and takes control of the whole nation. Twelve thousand Jews are massacred as Romans enter Jerusalem. The Priests of the Temple are struck down at the Altar. Rome annexes Judea.
See also: Chanukah rituals