JERUSALEM, Israel -- On the same day Israelis began celebrating Hanukkah this year, Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal vowed to destroy the Jewish state. Meshaal told thousands of Palestinian Arabs celebrating the terror group's 25th anniversary that Israel will cease to exist.
It's a threat that's been heard for millennia. Yet, am Yisrael chai! (the people of Israel live)
On Saturday evening, Israelis and Jews around the world celebrated the first night of Hanukkah, the festival marking the victory of a small band of guerilla fighters who by sheer courage defeated the Syrian Greek forces under Antiochus IV.
On the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah always begins on 25 Kislev. Like all Jewish holidays, it starts at sunset. This year that's from Saturday, December 8, through sunset on Sunday, December 16.
It's a festive holiday, enjoyed by children and adults alike, which has inspired Jews to strive for freedom against impossible odds for millennia -- right up to the present day.
It all started in 200 BCE when the Syrian Greeks conquered Israel and began imposing their Hellenistic lifestyle on the Hebrew nation. Life was tolerable under Antiochus III, but when his son, Antiochus IV, took over, he outlawed the Jewish Sabbath and ritual circumcision under penalty of death.
After his troops massacred thousands of Jews in Jerusalem, they defiled the Second Temple by dedicating it to Zeus and sacrificing pigs on the altar. The Jews were incensed. Within a few years, a Jewish priest named Mattathias rallied the people to revolt.
When Mattathias died, his son, Judah, took over. He was called Judah the Maccabee (the hammer), a fitting description for his small band of soldiers, who hammered away at the vastly outnumbered troops.
A year later, Judah's small army defeated the Syrian troops and set about cleansing and rededicating the Temple, which is why Hanukkah is also called the Feast of Dedication.
When they went to relight the Temple menorah, they found enough oil to last one day. Miraculously, the one-day supply lasted eight days until more could be prepared. That's why Hanukkah is also called the Festival of Lights.
To remember that miracle, Jews light candles on an eight-branched Hanukkah menorah every evening for eight days. There is a ninth candle called the shamash, or servant candle, used to light the others.
On the first night, one candle is lit and on each successive night, another is added until all eight are kindled on the last night.
Another tradition is to eat food fried in oil, such as potato pancakes or jelly doughnuts. Children also play a game with a four-sided top, called a dreidel (sevivyon in Hebrew).
In Jewish communities abroad, the Hebrew letters spell the acronym, "a great miracle happened there." In Israel, the fourth Hebrew letter is changed to read "a great miracle happened HERE!"
A traditional Hanukkah song called Ma'oz Tzur (Rock of Ages) describes Israel's enduring hope.
Rock of Ages, let our song praise Thy saving power! Thou amidst the raging foes wast our sheltering tower. Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us. And thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us!
Islamists such as Meshaal and Gaza-based Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh are just one more link in a long line of people who have threatened Israel's survival. They won't succeed because "The Lord will not abandon His people nor will He forsake His inheritance." (Psalm 94:14)
"For the Lord has chosen Zion. He has desired it for His habitation. This is my resting place, forever. Here I shall dwell. I will abundantly bless her provision. Her priests, I will clothe with salvation and her godly ones will sing aloud with joy. Her enemies I will clothe with shame but on them crowns shall shine." (Psalm 132:13-16, 18)