Tonight, the 7th of December, Jews in multiple time zones are lighting their first candle for Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights. The history of the festival dates back to 165 B.C. in the Jewish homeland, when the famous Maccabee soldiers defeated Israel’s ruthless enemy pagan King Antiochus IV. Their hard-fought victory made way for the cleansing and rededication of their desecrated Temple, their re-lit glowing menorah, Jewish culture, Scriptures, and freedom in the Holy Land. The Hebrew word hanukkah means “rededication.”
Lighting the first candle tonight happens amid the most profound darkness in Israel’s modern history. In this, Israel’s 75th year, the October 7 traumas relentlessly invade the emotions, minds, and memories of every Jewish Israeli as additional first-person stories of barbaric brutality emerge from released hostages.
Needed now are fervent, loving prayers for the new Maccabees—the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) fighting for Israel’s existence. In their small nation, it is said that every Israeli knows someone in the IDF, Israeli police, Mossad, or Shin Bet. These brave soldiers, intelligence officials, and security personnel have sacrificed their lives or suffered serious injuries to defend their country.
King Antiochus’s attempts to wipe out the ancient Jewish people and culture with forced Greek pagan worship can be seen as a historical backdrop for the Hamas terrorists—the New Nazis. The Maccabees were a comparatively small force of no more than 12,000 men up against a 40,000-man army. Today, the Israel Defense Forces has amassed upwards of 400,000 soldiers determined to put Hamas, Hezbollah, and other modern Islamic regime proxies into the dustbin of history for good. And they will.
It is worth noting that since the fourth millennium BCE, Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice. However, Israel is eternal, because during every darkness the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reassures Israel with His unbreakable promise: “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me. Your children hasten back, and those who laid you waste depart from you. Lift up your eyes and look around; all your children gather and come to you. As surely as I live,” declares the LORD, “you will wear them all as ornaments; you will put them on, like a bride” (Isaiah 49:16-18 NIV).
The steadfast Maccabees from long ago set a historical precedent of Jewish resilience that is reflected within today’s IDF. In a speech to Israel’s citizens, Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant proclaimed, “You have someone to be proud of, you have someone to trust. The IDF and all the security agencies are the defensive shields that ensure our lives in the State of Israel.”
Also inspirational are stories about Jews held captive in Nazi death camps—those who, despite their inhuman imprisonment, created inventive ways to celebrate the Maccabees and subsequent Festival of Lights. Author I.I. Cohen relates his own story in My Auschwitz-Spoon Hanukkah. Before being transferred to the Kaufering concentration camp, Cohen had smuggled a spoon out of Auschwitz. He also kept a mental calendar of Jewish festivals and thus knew Hanukkah was approaching. Holding any kind of prayer or Jewish practice was sure to bring punishment or death—yet some 500 prisoners were determined to celebrate anyway.
Cohen commented, “We tried whenever possible to … maintain a self-image as God-fearing Jews, despite all the dangers that involved.” One man donated a small piece of butter he had saved from his daily ration to use as “oil.” Others unraveled threads from their uniforms for wicks. Yet, what could serve as a menorah? Cohen pulled out his spoon, which served as a tiny menorah once they’d added the wicks and oil. They lit the candle and recited the blessings, with memories from past Hanukkahs at home. Mr. Cohen explained that it “kindled a glimmer of hope.” He survived three concentration camps.
Another story comes from Bergen-Belsen in 1943 via Yaffa Eliach’s book, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. In it, he recounts how Rabbi Israel Shapiro managed a plan to celebrate Hanukkah. The men saved up bits of fat from their skimpy food allotments; the women pulled threads from their ragged clothing and twisted them into wicks. The candleholder was fashioned from a raw potato, and toy dreidels for children were carved out of the wooden shoes worn by prisoners. Risking their lives, the inmates stealthily walked to Barracks 10. Rabbi Shapiro put together the parts, and while chanting the blessings, broke into tears of grief—he had lost his wife, only daughter, son-in-law, and only grandchild. Everyone gathered wept with him as they attempted to sing Ma’oz Tzur, a traditional song proclaiming their faith in God, the Rock of their strength.
Rabbi Shapiro also lamented about why God had given miracles to their ancestors but not to them now. He then answered his own question: “By kindling this Hanukkah candle we are symbolically identifying ourselves with the Jewish people everywhere. Our long history records many bloody horrors our people have endured and survived.” He prophetically added, “We may be certain that no matter what may befall us as individuals, the Jews as a people will outlive their cruel foes and emerge triumphant in the end.” His declaration reflects that even a tiny light pierces the dark reality of physical imprisonment—and that Jewish spirits are not bound in chains.
Finally, a simple Hanukkah celebration held during World War I at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, would turn out to have planted a world-changing seed. Jews stationed there in 1917 awaited their overseas orders to Europe. To celebrate Hanukkah—with few supplies and no chaplain—the Jewish soldiers made a menorah from shell casings collected from the firing range. Eddie Jacobson, a Jewish soldier from Kansas City, Missouri, invited his Christian friend, Captain Harry Truman, to attend. Several Jewish women from nearby Lawton, Oklahoma, brought the traditional potato latkes. Jewish soldiers told the story of the victorious Maccabees, lit the candles, and celebrated.
It is said that Truman, who was experiencing Hanukkah for the first time, listened closely and then commented, “I think the Jewish people should have its own land again.” Thirty-one years later, when Truman served as president, he and Eddie Jacobson had remained friends. Jacobson became instrumental in convincing his friend to vote in favor of a modern Jewish state at the United Nations. President Truman cast his vote on May 14, 1948—the first world leader to do so.
Since the beginning of the Hamas War—two months ago today— 401 soldiers have sacrificially given their lives to oppose evil-minded men. The IDF has entered another phase of its strategic war to eliminate Hamas Nazis in Gaza’s south, where they have created a detailed map split into hundreds of locations that pinpoint safe zones for civilians. No other military on earth takes these kinds of measures to protect civilians.
The modern Maccabee army has erected a 15-foot menorah in Beit Hanoun in Gaza as a symbol of the IDF’s remarkable achievements thus far. It is a Chabad project of IDF reserve soldiers led by Rabbi Yosef Aharonov at Tzach of Israel. Rabbi Aharonov reported that they will erect more than a dozen menorahs in Gaza and give out personal menorahs and the traditional Hanukkah doughnuts to over 10,000 Israeli soldiers deployed in Gaza. “We also plan to have volunteers light the large menorahs each night of Hanukkah,” he said, “bringing light to the darkest places.”
This article originally appeared here and is reposted with permission.
Arlene Bridges Samuels pioneered Christian outreach for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). After nine years she retired and later worked part-time with International Christian Embassy Jerusalem USA. Arlene is now an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel and writes a weekly column at CBN ISRAEL. She has often traveled to Israel, including being invited three times by Israel’s Government Press Office to their annual Christian Media Summit. Read more of her articles on her CBN Israel blog.