In about 167 B.C., the Seleucids ruled over a vast empire — including Jerusalem and Judea.
Unlike previous rulers over the region, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes did not allow the Jewish people who lived there to keep their religion and culture. He ordered them to worship the Greek gods, and converted the Temple in Jerusalem to the worship of Zeus.
So a group of Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, gathered an army and revolted against the Seleucids. After a number of battles, they marched victorious into Jerusalem and retook the Temple.
“We were able to celebrate and worship freely once again,” said Dennis Peck, an elder at the Beth Hallel Messianic Fellowship in Lodi.
Halfway around the world and more than 2,100 years later, Lodi’s Jewish community is celebrating Hanukkah, the holiday that remembers the Maccabees’ victory.
Beth Hallel is holding services daily for the full eight-day holiday, which began on Sunday night. But they also invite the local community — of any religious background — to attend the service on Saturday, Dec. 8 and join the celebration.
“It’s open to all people,” Peck said. “A lot of people don’t think it’s for them if they’re not Jewish, but it’s open to anyone interested in learning more about the Jewish origin of Christianity.”
Hanukkah is one of Judaism’s more secular holidays, but it does have some religious origins. When the Maccabees reached the Temple in Jerusalem, they found that it had been defiled by sacrifices of unclean animals. All of the oil except one container had been tainted.
The one remaining jar of oil was expected to light the temple’s menorah for one day. It lasted for eight days, until the supplies had been purified and the Temple could be rededicated.
“That’s what it’s all about — it’s about rededicating the Temple, which is now yourself,” Peck said.
Non-Jewish visitors to Beth Hallel’s service can think of it as rededicating themselves to God, he added.
It’s why lighting the menorah is central to celebrating Hanukkah, and why fried foods are a traditional part of the holiday, according to the website Chabad.
Hanukkah is also a celebration of religious freedom — the Jewish people’s battle to maintain their religion and culture in the face of the Seleucids’ oppression.
“We were able to celebrate and worship freely once again,” Peck said.
Beth Hallel celebrates with Torah readings and Israeli dancing, he said.
While it’s a Jewish holiday, he said, Christians should celebrate it as well — because Jesus did. In the Bible, John 10:22-30 describes Jesus celebrating the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem.
Hanukkah is important for Christians as well as Jews for another reason, Peck said.
“There would be no Christmas without Hanukkah,” he said.
The Maccabees’ rebellion was more than a century before Jesus was born. If they’d failed and the Seleucids had succeeded in wiping out Jewish culture and religion, there would have been no Judaism for Jesus to be born into, he said.
“I know God’s plan would have worked some way around it, don’t get me wrong,” Peck said.
But Christianity and Judaism both would look extremely different today had the Maccabees failed. No one would have been looking for a Messiah.
“The service is beautiful, too,” Peck said. “We present all of the sights and sounds that Jesus would have heard, and yet it’s distinctly Jewish. We keep the tradition at Beth Hallel.”
Beth Hallel usually sees about 35 to 40 people at its services, Peck said.
Visitors can come as they are, he said.
“Nobody has to stand up and introduce themselves, and we don’t pass a plate,” he said.
All of Beth Hallel’s elders are volunteers, he added, and donations are passed on to the Pregnancy Resource Center of Lodi or Magen David Adom, Israeli first responders.
Beth Hallel doesn’t want to convert anyone, either, Peck said. They just want to welcome the community to learn more about their faith, and build connections with Lodi’s other religious communities.
“We’re more than happy to welcome our Christian brothers and sisters and anyone else in the public who wants to come in,” Peck said.