Tonight marks the first night of Chanukah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, that continues for eight days.
Chanukah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews see it as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration.
The story of Chanukah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy.
More than a century after Alexander’s death, his successor, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple. The Jewish people revolted against both the assimilation of the Jews and oppression by the Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.