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8 Days of Hanukkah Begin Tonight : Religion: The importance of the holiday stems from the fact that it is the first recorded fight for religious freedom, a Jewish scholar says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousands of Orange County Jews begin celebrating Hanukkah tonight, an eight-day festival that commemorates one of the earliest fights for religious freedom.

For the most part, Jews celebrate the holiday at home by lighting candles each night on a candelabrum called a menorah, exchanging gifts, eating latkes, or potato pancakes, and teaching children a game played with a top.

The holiday, also called the Festival of Lights, recognizes the victory of a small band of Israelites called the Maccabees over the ruling Syrians in the 2nd Century BC. The Syrian king, Antiochus, had seized control of the temple in Jerusalem and desecrated it. When Judah Maccabee and his band emerged victorious, they cleansed and rededicated the temple and celebrated for eight days.

According to legend, the holiday lasts eight days because of a miracle: when the Maccabees took back the temple, they had only enough oil to light the synagogue lamp for one day--but it burned for eight days.

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Many religion scholars, however, discredit that story. The legend didn’t appear in the Babylonian Talmud until 400 to 600 years after the Maccabean War, while more contemporary accounts in the first and second books of Maccabee make no mention of the so-called miracle. Instead, they say that the Jews celebrated for eight days because they had been unable to observe Sukkot--another eight-day holiday--during the war.

The holiday probably has its roots in an ancient pagan holiday called Saturnalia, an eight-day festival of bonfires and gift-giving which was brought to the Middle East by Alexander the Great’s army in the 4th Century BC, according to Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El in South Orange County.

“This holiday started because people thought the sun was losing power and they were being overwhelmed by the forces of darkness--which explains why it took place at this time of year,” said Krause, who also teaches religion at Cal State Fullerton.

Jewish religious leaders, unhappy that their people were observing a pagan holiday, “superimposed” the historical event of rededicating the temple in 165 BC, Krause said.

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Several hundred years later, the miracle-of-the-oil story was developed as an explanation for the holiday’s eight-day duration.

“It’s a nice story, sort of a Santa Claus story,” Krause said. “It represented God’s great might, it became popular, and some people thought it was true.”

But Hanukkah’s importance, Krause said, does not stem from the story of the miracle.

“That’s not the reason we celebrate it,” he said. “It was the first recorded fight for religious freedom, and it emphasizes how important it is for people to have freedom of worship. That’s much more significant.”

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Most synagogues and Jewish community groups will hold their main Hanukkah celebrations this weekend. The Jewish Community Center of South Orange County, for example, will hold its annual Hanukkah party on Sunday at 10 a.m. at 298 Broadway in Laguna Beach. For reservations, call (714) 497-2070.

Chabad of West Orange County, meanwhile, will present a “1990 Chanukah Live” show the same day at 5 p.m. at 5702 Clark Drive in Huntington Beach. For information or reservations, call (714) 846-2285.


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