Paul Greenberg

It's starting to look a lot like ... Chanukah.

Tonight we light the first candle, for it's the first night of this minor, eight-day Jewish holiday that's become a major one in our time. Maybe because of its proximity to Christmas and the temptation to provide some sort of Jewish equivalent.

So tonight we'll recite the old but ever-new new blessings. There'll be songs sung, latkes eaten, and children's games played with a spinning top. But just what does Chanukah celebrate?

Answer: A successful Jewish revolt against a Syrian empire ruled by the Seleucid dynasty of Greek kings some 2,200 years ago.

Well, not exactly. The revolt was not so much against the Syrian emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes (Antiochus the Divine!), as against his attempt to impose Hellenistic culture on ancient Judaea.

Well, not exactly. It's not noised about, but this now celebrated revolt against the Syrians was really something of a civil war between those Jews who proposed to adopt more of the then-fashionable Greek culture and those who rejected it. The rebels viewed its games and gods as a desecration, and fought for the old ways, the ancient practices and beliefs.

It may not be the politically correct thing to say, but this religious festival commemorates a military victory -- of tradition over assimilation, of fundamentalism over modernism, of the atavistic over the supposedly advanced.

Well, not exactly. The military aspects of the struggle are scarcely mentioned in today's celebration of Chanukah. The focus has shifted over the centuries. The very name Chanukah, or Dedication, now refers to the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was defiled by pagan rites. Over the centuries of exile, the rabbis succeeded in de-emphasizing the military aspects of the holiday -- much too violent, chauvinistic and provocative for their tastes. After all, the holiday isn't named for any particular battle or campaign or hero. It isn't the Feast of the Maccabees, who led the revolt. Therefore, the real theme of Chanukah is the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Well, not exactly. The essential ritual of the holiday has become the blessing over the Chanukah lights, usually a home ceremony. A talmudic legend tells how the liberators of the Temple found only enough consecrated oil to burn for one day, but it lasted for eight -- enough time to prepare a new supply. We're really celebrating not the redemption of the ancient Temple but the miracle of the lights that took place there.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.