Monday, December 22, 2008

Nes Gadol Hayah PO!*

One of the amazing things about being in Israel is being able to visit the sights of the many occurrences in the Torah. Being able to look out our windows at the hills of Judea. Being able to touch the walls that Herod built around the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which no longer exists. The remaining piece of the retaining wall is known as the Western Wall). Being able to celebrate holidays with other people who are celebrating the same holiday, rather than being the odd man out.

It never occurred to us, though, that in our choice of town in Israel, we would be celebrating our first Chanukah in Israel in the very spot where the makings of this holiday took place. Very briefly:
In the 2nd century BCE (Before Common Era), when the Greeks ruled what is now Israel, the ruler Antiochus forbade Jewish observance. Jews were not allowed to study Torah, keep Shabbat, give their sons Brit Milah (circumcision), eat kosher food and the Greeks put statues of Zeus and other gods in the Temple in Jerusalem - all in an attempt to assimilate the Jews completely into Greek culture.

A group of Jews, led by Mattityahu HaCohen, and his sons - most famously, Judah Maccabbee - rebelled against the Greeks. Despite being grossly out-armed and outnumbered, the Maccabim prevailed. When they went to clean and purify the Temple, they found only one cask of oil with seal of the Cohen Gadol, or high priest. This oil would only be enough to light the Menorah in the temple for one night, but miraculously, it stayed lit for 8 days, which was long enough for more purified oil to be located.

In honour of this miracle, we light our menorahs (or more accurately, a Chanukiah. A Menorah has 6 branches, a Chanukiah, 8) for 8 nights.
The Maccabim fought against the Greeks in the area that is now known as the city of Modi'in. The graves of the Maccabim are in the forest across the highway from my house. I can see the forest from my balcony. It took 2 minutes to drive there (it was another 20 minutes to remember exactly where in the forest the graves were, but that's another story).**

I started the first night of my first Chanukah in Israel reciting the prayer for the Righteous over the graves of the actual people whose courage and commitment to the laws of Torah thousands of years ago gave us this holiday. I lit my Chanukah candles overlooking hills that contain artifacts from the Hashmonean period, the period of rule by the Maccabees.

After we lit and our friend David HaCohen led us in some Chanukah songs, since we had rented a car, we went shopping around town. Every store had a Chanukiah, lit with a first-night candle and everyone was wishing everyone a "Chag Sameach!" (basically, festive day). There were even a few stores giving out free sufganiyot (jelly donuts).

I have to admit, I'm a bit in awe of my first night of Chanukah. It's not considered a major holiday; in fact, it's not even a Torah holiday, but when you put it all together, I think my first night of my first Chanukah in Israel will stand as my favourite holiday moment ever.

Chag sameach!

*If you look at a dreidel, there are Hebrew letters written on the sides:

נ ג ה ש
נ - nun, ג - gimmel, ה - hay, ש - shin
Nes Gadol Haya Sham - A great miracle happened there.

But here in Israel, we say,
נ ג ה פ
Nes Gadol Haya Po - A great miracle happened HERE!

**There's an archeological dispute over the graves. A set of graves were found in this forest, Yar Ben Shemen, that are currently identified by the State of Israel as the graves of the Maccabim. Archeologists believe that another set of graves in another part of the forest are actually the graves of the Maccabim, and that the first set of graves are not accurate to the time period. They won't be excavated anytime soon, for all sorts of political reasons. Logic, science and the Book of Maccabbee lead us to agree with the archeologists.

A monument to the modern-day Maccabim who died in the war in 1948,
very near the location of the graves of the ancient Maccabim.


Jess said...

Also, fun fact for the historically inclined: After taking power and restoring the right to practice Judaism, the Hasmoneans (AKA: The Hashmonayim, which is the family name of the Maccabees and their descendants) turned out to be, with a few exceptions...pretty corrupt and terrible rulers.

Oh well.

You can't win 'em all


Altmans said...

Anybody who needs to be a High Priest AND the King is pretty much guaranteed to be pretty corrupt.

Eh, well, nobody's perfect. ;)