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Hanukkah is Judaism’s winter Festival of Lights, answering the darkness of the cold season with warm flames. Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE and the rededication of the Jewish Temple to God — a dedication that was crowned by the lighting of the Temple’s menorah.
The menorah was a seven-branched candelabra that lit the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. It was lit only by specially, ritually-pure olive oil — olive oil that took more than a week to prepare. As legend has it, after the Maccabees drove the Greeks and their idols from the Temple, they cleaned and rededicated the space and managed to find but one cruse of this special oil, an amount that would traditionally have lit the menorah for just one day. But, miraculously, this one small jar of oil burned for eight whole days, allowing the menorah to remain alight until new oil could be prepared.
Another way Jews commemorate the miracle of the oil is by eating fried foods. The two most traditional are latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts).
Before the Maccabees drove out the Greeks and rededicated the Temple, Jews were forbidden from worshipping their God or even studying Torah. But they studied their sacred texts anyway, and to hide what they were doing, would quickly put the books (then scrolls) away and take out little tops and pretend to be playing with them.
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