The Hebrew word Chanukkah means dedication. The dedication of Jews to the celebration of this holiday has lead over the years to several spelling changes. Despite these changes, Hanukah remains an eight-day holiday dedicated to the memory of a miracle.
The event that led to the celebration of Hanukah took place in 165 B.C., but the history behind Hanukah actually began in 333 B.C. In that year Philip of Macedonia invaded Greece. Athens and the Greek states thus became part of the empire known as Macedonia. Two years later Philip died, and his son Alexander became the ruler of that same empire.
Alexander, who historians have named "Alexander the Great," desired to expand the reach of his empire. He marched with his army down the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and eventually marched into the city of Jerusalem. The Jews did hot resist the advance of Alexander and his forces, but the Jews were reluctant to adopt the culture practiced by those soldiers, the culture called Hellenism. This reluctance would motivate the actions of those who helped to precipitate the events leading up to Hanukah.
Alexander left Jerusalem and traveled to Egypt, to Persia, to India and then to China. Eventually he returned home and died while still in his 30s. At Alexander's death one of his generals, Ptolemy, became ruler of Jerusalem. One hundred years later Jerusalem was conquered by the Syrians. The Syrians and the Greeks, who tried to persuade the Jews to adopt a new culture, actually became the motivating force behind the celebration of Hanukah.
Even the placement in the Jewish Temple of Greek gods could not force the Jewish people to abandon the worship of their own true God. One important act of Jewish resistance took place in the home of Mattiyahu. When the Greeks put an altar in this home and asked Mattiyahu to offer a sacrifice at that altar, he refused. Then when another Jew attempted to offer a sacrifice at that same altar, the homeowner killed him. The fighting that ensued would end with the first Hanukah.
Judah Maccabee, a son of Mattiyahu, led the Jewish in their fight to maintain their culture and their religion. He and his men finally defeated the Greeks on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in the year 165 B.C. So much of the Temple had by then been destroyed that the victorious Jews, eager to light the lamp within the Temple had trouble finding any oil. Finally they found enough oil to keep a flame going for one night. Yet Hanuka is eight days long. Why?
Ah, but that, my dear reader, is the miracle. The flame miraculously continued burning for eight days, providing enough time for delivery of a new shipment of oil. That explains why the Hanukah menorah becomes lighted on eight successive nights. The center candle is used to light one or more candles each night, starting with the candle on the right side of the menorah. By the eighth day of Hanuka all candles on the menorah are burning, and the Jewish people have again shown their dedication to the memory of that first miracle.