Chanukah/Hanukkah (חנוקה / KHA-noo-kah) is the most exciting and celebrated of the Jewish holidays. Even though it is considered only a minor festival, more Jews celebrate this holiday than any other. Gentiles often think of this day as the Jewish celebration of Christmas, but nothing could be further from the truth.
But, where DID it come from?
Why is it celebrated?
More importantly, why was it added to the list of feasts the Jewish people celebrate each year?
The Tenach (the Old Testament) does not refer to the celebration of Hanukkah. This festival day is not even mentioned in the Jewish Torah, the Prophets or other writings. The reason is the event that inspired the celebration of this holiday occurred after the Tenach was written. Moses had finished writing the Torah in the year 1273 B.C.E. The miraculous event of Chanukah occurred over a thousand years later, around the years 140-149 B.C.E.
The Desecration of the Temple
Israel was conquered and enslaved many times throughout history. In 168 B.C.E. Antiochus, a Syrian emperor from the north, ruled over Israel and set out to destroy Judaism by making it illegal to observe its customs. He began by dedicating the Holy Temple to the gods of Olympia and Zeus in December of 168 or 167 B.C.E. Then, in a strategic attack planned on the Sabbath when the Jews would not fight, he destroyed much of the city of Jerusalem. He defiled the altar of the Holy Temple by sacrificing a pig and sprinkling its blood in the Holy of Holies. This blood was also poured over the scrolls that contained the Holy Word of God, which were then torn to pieces and burned.
His goal was to defeat Israel’s armies, humiliate their God, and integrate them into the Greek culture.
All forms of Judaism and each of its customs were outlawed under the penalty of death. Mini-altars were erected in every town dedicated to pagan Greek gods. His troops then ordered all local communities to worship these gods and eat the flesh of pigs to prove their conversion from Judaism. The penalty for refusing to eat the meat was death. It was a degrading and demoralizing tactic designed to cause the Jews to renounce their faith. Thousands of Jews were put to death for refusing to renounce the God of their fathers.
The Miracle of the Oil
One day, a representative of Antiochus IV arrived in the town of Modi’in and attempted to force a priest, Mattathias Maccabee, to sacrifice to a pagan deity. Mattathias refused, but another Jew volunteered to perform the sacrifice. Overcome by righteous anger, Mattathias pulled out his sword and killed both the representative and the traitorous Jew upon the altar. Thus, the Maccabean revolt began (recorded in the uncanonized Book of Maccabees).
The Maccabees left the village, fleeing to the hills where thousands of loyal and courageous Jews joined them to form legions of warriors ready to fight on Israel’s behalf. They set out together to liberate Jerusalem and reclaim the Temple. After a victorious battle, they entered the Temple and cleared it of all false idols and images. A new altar was rebuilt with hand-hewn (not cut) stones as instructed in the Torah that was dedicated on the 25th of the month of Kislev (mid-Nov. to mid-Dec.)
The golden Menorah, which held the “eternal flame” (a symbol of God’s presence), had been stolen by the Syrians, so the priests made a new one. As they began to light it, they only found one container of sanctified oil that had not been defiled by the invaders. Although this was only enough for one day, and it would be 8 days before new, pure oil could be made available, the lamp was lit.
By God’s miraculous hand, the light continued to burn through eight days!
That miracle proved that God had once again taken His people under His protection and provision. He provided the light that would ensure His presence was known throughout the Temple. The assembly of Israel then determined that every year, beginning on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days.
Festival of Lights
Hanukkah became known as the Festival of Lights. To celebrate the miracle of the oil in the Menorah lasting for eight days, Jews light candles in a candleholder called a Hanukkiah for eight consecutive nights. The Hanukkiah (an eight-armed candelabra) holds nine candles – one for each night, plus a candle called the shamash (attendant / servant) used to light the other candles. The candles are added in order from right to left. On the first night, one candle is added to the far-right open candleholder. Each night, an additional candle is added, placing the first candle to the right and the next candle beside it. This is repeated all eight nights of Hanukkah when all 8 candles + the shamash are burning.
The candle-lighting service is also accompanied by singing traditional songs and the saying of three special blessings. All three are said on the first night and only the first and second for the remaining seven nights to follow.
Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe,
Who made us holy through Your commandments
And commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.
Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe,
Who performed wonderous deeds for our ancestors
in those ancient days at this season.
Praised are You, our God, Ruler of the universe,
Who has given us life and sustained us
And enabled us to reach out this season.
Small gifts of money or treats have also been the custom, however in recent times, it has come to resemble more Christmas traditions, with parents giving their children a gift each night of the festival.
Hanukkah Foods and Fun
Most of the traditional Hanukkah foods are deep-fried in oil to remind the people of the small amount of oil that miraculously burned for eight days. Deep-fried jelly donuts called Sufganiyot and potato pancakes called Latkes are the favorite foods eaten during this holiday season.
It is also customary to play a game with a spinning top called a Dreidel, which is a four-sided spinning top bearing the Hebrew letters Nun, Gimmel, Hei and Shin, an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (a great miracle happened there) for those playing it outside of Israel or the letters Nun, Gimmel, Hei and Peh, an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Poh (a great miracle happened here) for those playing it in Israel. The game is usually played for a pot of coins, nuts, or other stuff, which is won or lost based on which letter the dreidel lands when it is spun.
The Light of the World
As previously stated, Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Old Testament because it did not exist at the time it was written. The first mention of this celebration in The Bible is John 1:22 “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter and Jesus was in the temple.” It was at this feast, that Jesus declared himself to be both Messiah and Son of God. The Jews asked him to tell them “plainly” if he was the Messiah (John 10:24).
If they were unsure who Jesus was claiming he was, it became clear when he professed, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
The Feast of Dedication is a reminder of those who courageously remain faithful to God in the face of persecution. One of the major themes throughout the New Testament is remaining faithful to Christ, especially during persecutions. The Book of Revelation speaks specifically to the persecution believers will face before the return of Christ (Rev. 2:10; 13:10).
Hanukkah is also a reminder that God is faithful and delivers his people not only from the oppression of evil rulers but also from the oppression of sin.
“I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in
darkness, but will have the light of life.”
John 8:12 (NKJV)
Chag Urim Sameach!
(Happy Festival of Lights)