1st Night, Dec. 18, One God, One Temple:
The Jewish God and the Jewish temple were somewhat of anomalies in the ancient Mediterranean world. Among Israel's polytheistic neighbors, multiple deities were worshipped at multiple cultic sites. In contrast, the Jewish people worshipped only one God, at one Temple located in Jerusalem. This Temple was the center of Jewish religious life and worship at the Temple was the primary means of honoring the God of Israel.
2nd Night, Dec. 19, Two Worldviews: Torah vs. Hellenism:
In 331 BC, Alexander the Great decisively defeated the Persian armies and exerted control over the Middle East (ancient Near East). Alexander brought with him a new Greek-inspired worldview - Hellenism - that directly conflicted with the traditional Torah-centered worldview of the Jewish people. This conflict would create simmering unrest both between Jews and their Hellenistic overlords, as well as between Jews who remained committed to Torah and Jews who became Hellenized.
3rd Night, Dec. 20, Three Factions:
After Alexander the Great's death, his empire split into multiple, competing factions. Two of these factions - the Egyptian Ptolemies and the Syrian Seleucids - fought over the territory of Judea. A third faction - a limited Jewish government run by priestly leadership - found itself caught in the middle of this conflict.
4th Night, Dec. 21, Antiochus IV (Epiphanes):
The Seleucids eventually defeated the Ptolemies and gained control of Judea. Their ruler - Antiochus IV - wanted to strengthen his control over the region and so he instituted harsh and oppressive policies for the Jewish population. His strategy - to thoroughly Hellenize the Jews - was carried out by (a) outlawing Jewish religious rites and traditions, and (b) ordering mandatory participation in Hellenistic religious customs.
5th Night, Dec. 22, Five Sons of Mattathias:
An elderly priest from a small town called Modi'in refused to follow the oppressive decrees of Antiochus IV. At a town gathering, Seleucid officials attempted to force the local Jewish population to conduct pagan sacrifice. Mattathias killed a Jewish collaborator and fled to the wilderness with his five sons. Although Mattathias died within a year, his sons took up the cause and led a rebellion against the Seleucid empire. Of his five sons, Judah, Jonathan, and Simon were the most influential.
6th Night, Dec. 23, 166 BC: The Battle of Emmaus:
Using guerilla tactics, Judah and his troops fought their way to a series of early victories. A turning point in the rebellion was the Battle of Emmaus in 166 BC - a decisive victory for the Jewish troops that forced the Seleucid forces to retreat and regroup. This opened the way for Judah's army to retake Jerusalem. After a period of hard fighting, Judah and his troops managed to capture most of the city and reclaim possession of the Temple.
7th Night, Dec. 24, Seven Branches of the Temple Menorah:
Having reclaimed the Temple, the Jewish rebels set about rededicating the Temple and reinstituting proper worship. One key obstacle stood in their way: they were only able to find one container of olive oil to fill the seven oil lamps of the Temple menorah. Under normal circumstances, one container would only be enough to fuel the Menorah for one day.
8th Night, Dec. 25, Eight Miraculous Days:
According to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the oil that should have only lasted for one day ended up fueling the Menorah for eight days - the amount of time needed for the priests to press and prepare additional olive oil. To commemorate this miracle, Jewish communities around the world celebrate the festival of Hanukkah - which is the Hebrew word for "Dedication" - every year, starting on the 25th of the month of Kislev, which the day on which Judah and his troops rededicated the temple. Using special eight-branched menorahs, Jewish families light one candle each night for eight nights, to commemorate the eight days of the original miracle.