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The story of Chanukah is the age-old struggle of the Jewish people trying to remain Jewish in a non-Jewish world. Chanukah begins on the 25th day of Kislev and lasts eight days. It commemorates the victory of Judah Maccabee and his followers over the forces of the tyrannical Syrian ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, in 165 B.C.E.
Chanukah is more than the end of an unsuccessful attempt to destroy Judaism. The threat to Judaism was not only from outside forces, but also came from inside Jewish society as well. The assimilation to Hellenistic culture was so great that some Jews sought to become fully assimilated, to be accepted as Greek citizens, and to participate in Green culture at the expense of their own unique Judaic culture. The way that the Maccabees and their allies resisted assimilation preserved Judaism.
Rededicating the Temple
Chanukah also celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Talmudic legend, when the Hasmoneans recaptured and cleansed the Temple, they found only a single cruse of oil, enough to keep the menorah lit for only one day. They dispatched a runner to bring more oil, a journey that took eight days. To the surprise and amazement of the people, the menorah in the Temple remained lit until the new oil arrived. To solemnize their victory over the Syrians, the Maccabees proclaimed an eight-day festival, which would be observed annually.
Today we continue the tradition and commemorate this miracle when we light Chanukah candles in a special nine-branched menorah, called a chanukiah. The nightly kindling of the chanukiah with its increasingly brighter light has become a symbol not only of the miracle of the oil, but of our striving to resist tyranny and assimilation.
Chanukah's Nightly Blessings
The most widely known custom surrounding the celebration of Chanukah is the lighting of the chanukiah. Place the appropriate number of candles in the chanukiah from right to left, including the shamash, the service candle. Light the shamash first, then use the shamash to light the other candles. Recite the following blessings:
Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav, vetzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Chanukah.
Blessed is the Lord, our God, ruler of the universe, who has commanded us to kindle the lights of Chanukah.
Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, sheasa nisim lavoteinu, bayamim hahem, laman hazeh.
Blessed is the Lord, our God, ruler of the universe, who has performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.
We only recite the following shehecheyanu prayer on the first night. On the second and all subsequent nights, repeat the two previous blessings.
Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, shehecheyanu, vekiyemanu, vehegeanu lazman hazeh.
Blessed is the Lord, our God, ruler of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.