Sunday, December 25, 2011

Winters night turn into Festival of nights lit up with lights

About a half-dozen foreigners, members of the Jewish community and their families, and their Korean supporters commemorated a special religious rite more than 2000 years old at the Israel Culture Center in southern Seoul, Tuesday.

It was the first day of Chanukah, and as the days became darker and colder with the onset of winter, scores came out for the holiday which is also called the “Festival of Lights.”

“It can be enjoyed by Jews and non-Jews alike, because through winter as the days get shorter and colder, and darkness begins to prevail and it’s cold outside, it is comforting to have a ‘festival of lights,’” said Israeli Ambassador to Korea Tuvia Israeli.

Chanukah is celebrated around the world by the kindling of the candles placed in a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched Menorah or Hanukiah, an additional candle lit on each night of the holiday, adding one day-by-day to eight candles on the eighth and final night.

The holiday ends this Tuesday.

“It is also always nice to have a reason to enjoy the fattening fried foods,” Israeli said.

“We have special donuts, Sufganiyah” he added, pointing to a platter piled high with the pastries powdered with white sugar.

Through the eight days of Chanukah, the faithful go to work as usual but leave early to be home in time to light the candles at nightfall. There is no religious reason for schools to be closed, although in Israel, schools close from the second day for the whole week of Hanukkah.

Many families exchange gifts each night, too, and fried foods are eaten to underscore the importance of oil in Chanukah.

Guests at the Center enjoyed all manner of fried Jewish delicacies, including latkes, or potato pancakes.

“It is a great opportunity for a joyous get together,” he said. “It’s meant for the whole family. You’ll see kids around tonight, too.”

A Festival of Lights

The reason for the Chanukah lights is not for the practical purpose of illuminating an interior space as one might expect from lighting a candle, but rather for what scholars describe as “the illumination of the house without,” so that passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle.

Chanukah means “dedication” in Hebrew, as in the dedication of a building. It refers to the cleansing and re-dedication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount when Judea Maccabee re-conquered it from the ancient Greek Seleucid Empire (312-63B.C.) in 164 BC.

“Chanukah combines heroism, a strong belief in God, and the glory of the continuation and survival of the Jewish people, when we were really in the dark, when we couldn’t see any way of getting out from under the oppression of a large empire,”

The Temple Mount is the location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, one of holiest sites in Islam. The site's significance stems from religious traditions regarding the rock known as the Foundation Stone at its heart.

Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made.

Olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night, every night. The story goes that there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by Jewish sages to commemorate the perceived miracle.

Nowadays, lamps are set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street.

Only when there was danger of anti-Semitic persecution were lamps supposed to be hidden from public view, as was the case in Persia under the rule of the Zoroastrians or in Europe before and during World War II.

“We all sometimes are faced with difficulties, dark days, and feel helpless before tough troubles, but if we look deep enough, then we will always be able to find the light,” Israeli said, in his welcome speech to the 50-odd assembled.

Modern scholars argue that the Seleucid king was intervening in an internal civil war between the traditionalist Jews and the Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem.

The civil war escalated when the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire and its monarch sided with the Hellenized Jews in their conflict with the traditionalists by prohibiting the religious practices that the traditionalists had rallied around. This may explain why the king, in a total departure from Greek Seleucid practice in all other places and times, banned a traditional religion.

“Eventually the light was there,” Israeli said. “What we are celebrating is the sacramental work of the Holy Temple.”

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