The Festival of Lights
Hanukkah Quick Facts
Hebrew Meaning of Name: “Dedication” or “Consecration”
Transliterations: Channukah, Chanuka, Chanukah, Chanukkah, Hannukah, Hanuka, Hanukah, Hanukka
English Name: Festival of Lights
Western Calendar Month: Begins November or December
Jewish Calendar Date: Begins on Kislev 25
Duration: Eight days
Establishment of Hanukkah: 165 B.C.
Purpose of Hanukkah
Much more than the “Jewish alternative” to Christmas, Hanukkah, meaning “Dedication,” recalls a dark time in the history of our people and our miraculous deliverance from that darkness. This eight-day holiday commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the army of Antiochus Epiphanes, when God preserved and protected His people through the heroic actions of a small band of Jewish guerilla fighters.
For those of us who are Jewish believers in Jesus, the “Festival of Lights” reminds us that the spiritual deliverance we have is through Yeshua— the one who called himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12).
Origin of Hanukkah
All through our history, Jews have been dogged by the issue of assimilation. In the face of hostility, in ancient times and in the present, we have asked ourselves: should we uphold the faith of our ancestors, even if that means risking life and limb, or should we just conform to the surrounding culture?
The question became particularly pressing during the Hellenistic period (approximately fourth to second centuries B.C.), after Alexander the Great conquered the Western world. The Apocryphal1 books of First and Second Maccabees recount the battle of assimilation vs. anti-assimilation that raged during this period of Hellenization (“Greek-ifying”) that swept the Near East.
During the time of the Maccabees, the Israelites were wedged between two of the kingdoms established after Alexander’s death: Ptolemaic Egypt and Selucid Syria. With the ascent of the chauvinistic Selucid Antiochus IV, who called himself “Epiphanes” (lit. “visible god”), the delicate balance of power tipped in the direction of the Syrians and the fragile position of the Jews became even more precarious. A certain Jason bribed Antiochus and obtained the position of High Priest. Jason proceeded to dress Jerusalem in Grecian trappings but did not tamper with Jewish ritual and religion to the extent that more radical Hellenizers did2.
Three years after the start of his reign, Antiochus deposed Jason and replaced him with Menelaus, a staunch Hellenist who out-bribed Jason. Jason laid siege to Jerusalem, but Antiochus’ army quashed his forces, later pillaging and slaughtering the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
During the time of darkness that followed, the Selucids slew many Jewish people, all the while defiling and pilfering the Temple in Jerusalem and attempting to scrub out all traces of Jewishness. To show his utter contempt for the Jewish faith, Antiochus sacrificed a sow in the Temple to the Greek god Zeus3.
These abuses continued until Mattathias and his son, Judah Maccabee, led a revolt to bring us out of Antiochus’ darkness into light. Through the heroic actions of a band of guerilla fighters, the Maccabees (as Judah and his brothers were called) regained Jerusalem, cleansed the Temple, and restored the practice of Judaism.
Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple after its defilement under Antiochus. 1 Maccabees 4:59 tells us:
“Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev” (NRSV).
Moreover, Hanukkah originally resembled Sukkot, partly because the Maccabees were forced to celebrate Sukkot in the wilderness. 2 Maccabees tells us:
“They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals” (2 Maccabees 10:6, NRSV).
Hanukkah was thus established to echo Sukkot and to commemorate the triumphs of an ancient band of brave Jews who stood up for their way of life and faith in the one true God in the face of overwhelming odds.
According to later rabbinical tradition (not to be found in 1 and 2 Maccabees):
“When the rule of the Hasmoneans prevailed and they defeated the Hellenes, they searched and finally found a tiny pitcher of oil which bore the seal of the High Priest. In it was enough oil to last no more than one day. And a miracle occurred—it endured for eight days! For this reason a period of eight days was marked off for thanksgiving and praise.
The oil miraculously burned for eight days which was the necessary time to prepare a new supply of sacred oil for the temple menorah.
How Hanukkah Is Observed
On Hanukkah we light the menorah (an eight-branched candelabrum, also called a hanukkiah) each night at sunset, and recite a blessing. On each successive night we light an additional candle, using a ninth candle, the shammos (the center candle, mounted above the others) to light each one. This is to fulfill a prohibition that we not light Hanukkah candles using other Hanukkah candles. Jewish scholars have long considered the lighting of the candles a sacred act. Maimonides writes:
“The commandment to light the Hanukkah lamp is an exceedingly precious one, and one should be particularly careful to fulfill it, in order to make known the miracle, and to offer additional praise and thanksgiving to god for the wonders which He had wrought for us. Even if one has no food to eat except what he receives from charity, he should beg—or sell his garment to buy—oil and lamps, and light them.”4
During Hanukkah we also give gifts and sing songs. See “Customs and Folklore” below for more on the observance of Hanukkah.
Special Synagogue Readings for Hanukkah
There is always at least one Sabbath that falls during Hanukkah, for which the Torah portion is Genesis 41:1-44:17, part of the story of Joseph. The Haftarah reading is Zechariah 2:14-4:7. If an additional Sabbath falls during Hanukkah, the Haftarah is 1 Kings 7:4-50. Yemenite Jews have the custom of reading the Megillat Antiochus, an account of Hanukkah of uncertain origin that dates perhaps to the second century A.D.
Traditional Hanukkah Customs and Folklore
Traditionally, women are granted a reprieve from housework every evening following the kindling of the lights. This practice dates back to the Middle Ages, when the holiday became a sacred day for women: “In some communities, women did not work while the lights were burning, and often even during the whole of Hanukkah.”5 Not only that, according to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, “Women are obligated to light the Hanukkah menorah for they took part in the miracle” (Shabbat 23a).6 Thus, women have long participated fully in “proclaiming the miracle” of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is the source of other beloved traditions, including the game of dreidel. Dreidel (in Hebrew, sevivon, “spinning top”) was not invented by the Jews—it seems to have originated in ancient Greece and Rome.
In a game of dreidel, children gather together and are given gelt, chocolate coins that act as poker chips. The children take turns, spinning the dreidel; depending on which Hebrew letter of the four faces turns up, they either get nothing (nun—for Yiddish nichts, “nothing”), win all (the letter gimmel for the Yiddish “ganz,” all), win half the pot (the letter hey for the Yiddish “halb,” half), or lose some gelt (shin—in Yiddish “shtel ein,” put in [the pot]). Jews later took the first letter of each of these words to make an acrostic of the Hanukkah story: Nes Gadol Hayah Sham— “a great miracle happened there.” There are many variations on the rules of the game, but gelt is a must!
It’s traditional to eat foods made with oil on Hanukkah because of the miracle of the oil. Foods made with cheese also have found favor, based on a verse from the book of Judith: “And she gave to her maid a bottle of wine to carry, and a vessel of oil, and parched corn, and dry figs, and bread and cheese, and went out” (Judith 10:5, Douay-Rheims). (Only some sources contain “and cheese”; others omit it.) According to Jewish lore, Judith gave the wicked Babylonian general Holofernes “many cheese to make him thirsty” for wine, get drunk and fall asleep so she could kill him!7 In fact, the tradition of honoring women on Hanukkah may find its basis in Judith, who is said to have inspired Judah Maccabee.8 Cheese latkes, as well as potato latkes cooked in oil, fill the house with a delicious aroma on Hanukkah, often mingling with the smell of sour cream and applesauce. Sufganiyot, or doughnuts fried in oil, are popular in Israel.
Jews like to sing songs on Hanukkah, some solemn, some lighthearted. God loves to hear us sing together (Psalm 96:1 — ”O sing unto the LORD a new song: sing unto the LORD, all the earth”) and Hanukkah is a great opportunity for us to sing his praises. The most famous of all Hanukkah hymns, Maoz Tzur, celebrates God’s protective arm and heroic deliverance of the Jews out of the hands of Antiochus Epiphanes. Other favorites include “Sevivon”, “Turn Turn Turn”, “I Have a Little Dreidel” and “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.”
In recent years, it has also become customary to give children gifts during Hanukkah. Some decry this practice as an imitation of the consumerist practices of Christmas. Gift-giving or not, we should always remember the real purpose of Hanukkah: to gather round in a convivial atmosphere, celebrate our people’s history of resilience and thank God for his faithfulness.
Spiritual Application of Hanukkah
Hanukkah is mentioned one time in the New Testament. At that time, the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews [meaning Judeans or the Jewish leadership] gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (John 10:22-24)
Like the expectation of many of our grandparents or great-grandparents, the popular picture of the Messiah in Jesus’ time was that he would be a “super-Maccabee,” a warrior who would destroy Israel’s enemies and bring in everlasting peace. What better time than Hanukkah to ask Jesus to “come right out with it” if he were the Messiah, and to show it by his actions.
Jesus’ response was that he already made it clear by his actions, which were not those of a super-Maccabee but of a healer and teacher. Jesus was the kind of Messiah who, rather than destroying Rome, went to his death to atone for our sins and subsequently rose from the dead.
The Maccabees did a great service by preventing the faith of Israel from being swallowed up in Antiochus’ plans and the plans of his Hellenistic Jewish cohorts. Yet history shows that their descendants became corrupt, power-hungry, veering from the biblical ideals of kingship and priesthood. Could it be that we need something more than Maccabees to deliver us from something worse than Antiochus—to deliver us from our own sins and corruption? As the lights of the menorah are lit night after night, could it be that we Jews should consider Yeshua, “the light of the world,” and the deliverance that he offers?
1. The Apocrypha are religious writings from the first several centuries B.C. that do not have scriptural authority in Judaism or Protestant Christianity. However, many of the stories and chronicles of these books are looked to for the history they contain and for their explanations of religious practice and ritual.
2. Hayyim Schauss, The Jewish Festivals: History & Observance, trans. Samuel Jaffe (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), 213.
3. See Susan Perlman, “Hannukah: Is it Really a Minor Festival?” Jews for Jesus, accessed May 23, 2017. (article discontinued)
4. From Mishenh Torah, Laws of the Megillah and Hannukah, 4.1-3, 5-6, 8-12, 14.
5. Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd. ed., s.v. “Hanukkah.”
6. Cited in Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 169.
7. Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays, 169.
8. Judith is famous for slaying Holofernes, one of Nebuchadnezzar’s generals who sought the destruction of the Jews. Like Judah Maccabee, Judith’s story is told in the Apocrypha.