JERUSALEM, Israel -- Israel and Jews around the world began celebrating the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah on Tuesday evening.
The holiday commemorates the liberation of Jerusalem and the re-dedication of the Second Temple there after it was desecrated by the ruling Seleucid (Syrian Greek) Kingdom, under Antiochus IV. It also marks the re-establishing of religious freedom for the Jewish people.
Antiochus IV adopted a policy of forced Hellenization of the Jewish people and punished Jews who refused to adopt the culture. They were forced to eat pork (forbidden for Jews in the Bible) and Sabbath observance and circumcision -- both commanded in the Bible -- were punishable by death.
After the Temple was defiled and dedicated to the Greek god Zeus in 167 BC, Mattathias, a priest from Modi'in (outside of Jerusalem) and his five sons led a popular revolt against the Seleucid rule. He died shortly thereafter and his son Judah (known as Judah Maccabee) led the campaign that liberated Jerusalem in 164 BC.
According to rabbinic tradition, Judah's men found only enough purified oil to rekindle the Temple menorah (candelabra) for one day but it burned miraculously for eight days -- enough time for new oil to be prepared.
Today, Hanukkah celebrations revolve around that tradition. On the first night of Hanukkah, one candle of a nine-branch candelabra known as a hanukkiah is lit. Each successive night an additional candle or oil lamp is lit. The ninth candle is called the shamash or servant candle used to light the others.
Traditional Hanukkah foods include jelly donuts and latkes (potato pancakes).
In Israel, giant hanukkiahs are lit in public squares. The holiday is not a legal holiday in Israel, but schools are closed.
Although it's not a biblical holiday, special prayers and scriptures are read in the synagogue.
The New Testament says that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, called the Feast of Dedication, in John 10:22.