"The purpose of the celebration of Hanukkah is to welcome the Messiah. Peace is the Messiah. We light candles of peace to renew our faith in the ultimate triumph of peace over war. And we rededicate ourselves and our efforts to bringing this about."1
Rock of Ages let our song
Praise Thy saving power;
Thou amidst the raging foes
Wast our shelt’ring tower.
Furious they assailed us,
But Thine arm availed us,
And Thy word broke their sword
When our own strength failed us.
-Maoz Tzur, 13th Century
While the lyrics of Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages) express the traditional meaning of the Hanukkah celebration, Rabbi Nachman offers another explanation of the holiday: a festival of peace. Others see Hanukkah as a little holiday, a time for menorahs, latkes, dreydls end Hanukkah gelt. But some say Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas.” Are any of these assessments correct? In order to decide, you need to know the Hanukkah story.
The events of Hanukkah took place during the 400-year period between the writing of the last book of Hebrew Scriptures and the first book of the “New Testament.”
The Jewish people were under Persian rule until Alexander defeated the Persians in 331 B.C.E. Ten years later Alexander died and his kingdom was divided among his generals. While all of them were Greek they were far from harmonious. Syria was under the Seleucids and Egypt under the Ptolemies. Judea was caught in between.
The system of government for Jews changed under Greek rule. The Persians had been content to place a governor in Israel who primarily concerned himself with enforcing imperial civil laws and the payment of taxes. The Greek conquerors demanded compliance and conformity in religious practices as well. For the better part of the 3rd century B.C.E., the Jewish people were under the domination of the Greco-Egyptians. With the Persians, a foreign governor had been installed, but not so with the Ptolemies. Instead, the High Priest of Israel served as both political ruler and religious representative.
Along with this greater degree of self-rule came pressure to conform to Greek ways. This gave rise to political factions in Judea; some were more disposed to the Greco-Syrians, others to the Greco-Egyptians. Wars were frequent and eventually the Syrians conquered the Jewish land. The Seleucids were even more dedicated to inculcating Greek culture and customs on the people than the Egyptians. In order to conform, Jews adopted Greek names, wore Greek-style garments and adopted Greek ways.
Antiochus IV was the Syrian ruler. He called himself “Epiphanes” (the visible god). The now corrupted position of High Priest had been assumed by a hellenized Jew, Jason, formerly called Joshua. Jason was considered a “moderate” hellenist and so he was replaced by an even more hellenistic Menelaus (formerly Menachem).
The Persians had only wanted tribute from the Jewish people. The Greek successors to Alexander, especially Antiochus IV, held to a belief in the superiority of “the Greek way of life” and wanted much more. Hellenism encouraged intellectual pursuits and a polite, highly civilized society, but it also involved idolatry and exalted the wisdom of mankind.
The hellenists had nothing but disdain for the Jewish religion and the Jewish way of life and they set about to “civilize” the people of Judea by forcing them into the Greek mold. Only those who would renounce the “old ways” and embrace the new, including the worship of Greek gods, could have a place in this idealized Greek society. “Whoever refuses should be put to death,” it was decreed. And many were. This rejection of hellenism infuriated the Syrian king and we read in I Maccabees of the persecution that ensued:
The Books of the Law which they (the hellenists) found, they tore into pieces and burned. Wherever a book of the covenant was found in anyone’s possession, or if anyone respected the Law, the decree of the king imposed the sentence of death upon him. Month after month, they dealt brutally with every Israelite who was found in the cities…In accordance with the decree, they put to death the women who had circumcised their children, hanging the newborn babies around their necks; and they also put to death their families as well as those who had circumcised them…
The Holy Temple was defiled The golden altar, the candlesticks and all the gold and silver utensils were looted from the Temple and desecrated. And to show his utter contempt for Judaism, Antiochus offered a sow on the altar to honor the Greek god, Zeus.
During these dark times of devastation, it is said that Mattathias, an elderly priest from Modin, defied a Syrian soldier who ordered him to bow down to an idol. Instead he struck down the soldier and fled from the city to the hills of Judea. With his five sons and a few other faithful Jews, Mattathias formed a band of guerrilla fighters. They were faithful to the God of Israel and would not countenance Greek idolatry and, in zealous contempt, rejected Greek culture. They were called Hasmoneans, though no one seems to know how that name came about. Unlike the other Jewish resistance fighters, they believed that for self-defense purposes, it was permissible to fight on the Sabbath. Until this time, the Greeks could prevail by ordering their attack on the Sabbath.
This guerrilla company was valiantly successful in its skirmishes with the Syrian soldiers. The rebels grew in number and in the ability to fight, inflicting great damage on the Syrian forces with their “hit and run” tactics. According to the account in the extra biblical writings, Mattathias died within a year of their formation and his son Judah took charge. He was called “Maccabee,” which means “hammer,” for it was said that he was God’s hammer to smash the Syrians.
History and legend seem interwoven, but as best as we can piece it together, there were three years of fighting, surprise attacks, night raids and ambushes by these tough Jewish fighters.
Antiochus sent his ablest general, Lysias, to destroy the Hasmoneans. From their mountain camp, a war worn group of 3,000 Jewish fighters watched as 47,000 Syrian soldiers marched across the plain to engage them in battle. As the story goes, the faithful band of Maccabees, with God on their side, vanquished the Syrians at Emmaus. Judah Maccabee marched into Jerusalem and set about to purify the Temple. Idols were torn down and the altar which had been defiled with the sacrifice of pigs was dismantled and a new one built. New holy vessels were crafted. A date was set for the rededication of the Temple—the 25th of Kislev, the same day on which, three years earlier, Antiochus had issued his decree.
Tradition says that when Judah offered prayers of dedication in the Temple in 165 B.C.E., only one vessel of sanctified oil was found—enough for one day. Miraculously, it burned for eight days. This is remembered by the kindling of lights for eight days.
How Hanukkah observance has changed over the years! In a 1985 article, “Why Can’t We Have a Christmas Tree?,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Temple Valley Beth Shalom reflects:
“Parental figures dress up as Uncle Mordecai, mask their faces with Chasidic beards, don a blue suit, carry a bagfull of toys wrapped with menorah-figured paper, and place them around the Chanakah bush which is brightly lit with blue and white blinking lights (the colors are authentically Jewish)—announce cheerfully—Ho, ho, ho; Happy Chanakah! Christmas is but one night; Chanakah lasts for eight. So on each night the child is plied with gifts. With eight to one odds, the fidelity of the Jewish child to Chanukah is a sure thing.”2
Herman Wouk, the Jewish existentialist, says:
“It would be pleasant to believe that the stabbing relevance of Hanukkah to Jewish life in America has occasioned the swell of interest in the holiday. But a different and perfectly obvious cause is at work. By a total accident of timing, this minor Hebrew celebration falls close on the calendar year to a great holy day of the Christian faith. This coincidence has all but created a new Hanukkah…”3
The observance of Hanukkah, unlike Passover or Rosh Hashanah, is not among the festivals required by the Hebrew Scriptures. However, it is still worthwhile to celebrate it, and not merely to pacify Jewish children who might feel deprived because Santa Claus does not deliver to Jewish homes. Hanukkah is worth celebrating because it teaches us about the God of Israel, the God of peace and the God of power.
Herman Wouk reflects more on Hanukkah in This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life:
Our whole history is a fantastic legend of a single day’s supply of oil lasting eight days: of a flaming bush that is not consumed; of a national life that in the logic of events should have flickered and gone out long ago, still burning on.
One might dispute his use of the word “legend.” Still, Wouk has touched on the miracle of our people and the wonder of our God. It is unfortunate that he detracts from this awesome reflection by adding:
That is the tale we tell our children in the long nights of December when we kindle the little lights, while the great Christian feast blazes around us with its jeweled trees and familiar music.
The two festivals have one real point of contact. Had Antiochus succeeded in obliterating Jewry a century and a half before the birth of Jesus, there would have been no Christmas. The feast of the Nativity rests on the victory of Hanukkah.4
The Nativity, or the birth of Jesus (Yeshua), does not depend on Hanukkah. It’s not nearly that fragile. It does rest on the truthfulness and accuracy of the Jewish Scriptures.
Yet there is a connection between Hanukkah and Christmas. Hanukkah is often called “the Festival of Lights.” The explanation given by Josephus is that the right to serve God came to the people unexpectedly, like a sudden light.
Christmas is also a holiday about “a sudden light.” The story of the Nativity includes this account:
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and come to worship him.'” (Matthew 2:1,2)
The arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem must have impressed Herod, the Roman ruler of Judea, for he granted them an audience. And they asked him about the King of the Jews.
Herod’s first response was one of uneasiness. After all, the King of the Jews whom the Magi were seeking would surely be a threat to his Roman allies who enabled him to rule over the Jewish people. The Jews may have rededicated the Temple in 165 B.C.E., but they were still oppressed and governed by foreign powers. However, Herod apparently had enough religious knowledge of the people whom he ruled to call together the chief priest and scribes of Jerusalem. He asked them where this prophesied “King” was to be born.
These learned religious leaders pointed Herod back to the prophet Micah who said almost 800 years earlier:
“But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from ancient times.” (Micah 5:1)
Herod passed the information on to the Magi, telling them to come back to him when they found the child. (Later we learn that the Magi were warned by God not to tell Herod of Jesus’ whereabouts. Herod’s murderous response to this is described in Matthew 2:16-18.) As soon as the Magi headed for Bethlehem, the star, which had disappeared temporarily, reappeared and led them to the house in Bethlehem where they saw the infant Yeshua.
In a sense, Herman Wouk’s self-serving remarks about the Nativity resting on the victory of Hanukkah is a sad example of the insecurity of many Jews who need to hoist up Hanukkah in order to insulate nerves rubbed raw by December festivities.
Ironically, the Christmas story of the birth of Yeshua adds meaning to Hanukkah, “the Festival of Lights.” It was at the time of the “Feast of Dedication,” when all of Jerusalem was illumined with the light of the Hanukkah lamps that Yeshua spoke from the Temple courts:
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. ” (John 8:12)
The wicks in the oil of the Hanukkah lamps had barely burned out when the light of the world, Yeshua, came on the scene:
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the city of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Messiah the Lord!”
Could it be that Rabbi Nachman was not so innovative after all when he said that the purpose of Hanukkah is to welcome the Messiah?
- Rabbi Yaakov Bar Nachman, The Hanukkah Haggadah, (San Francisco: Barah Books, 1986), p. 17.
- Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, “Why Can’t We Have A Christmas Tree?” The Detroit Jewish News, December 20, 1985, p. 25.
- Herman Wouk, “Hanukkah Today.” The Hanukkah Anthology (Philadelphia The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976) p. 121.
- Herman Wouk, This is My God (New York Pocket Books, 1970), p. 80.