Hanukkah: Is It Really a Minor Festival?
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 shine arm availed us, And Thy word broke their sword When our own strength failed us.
Maoz Tzur, Rock of Ages, is perhaps the most familiar anthem associated with Hanukkah celebrations. Though the hymn Rock of Ages refers to the Creator, somehow Hanukkah discussions are concerned with other things. Menorahs, latkes and dreydls seem to take priority over prayer to God in modern day expressions. Some say Hanukkah is nothing more than the Jewish Christmas.” Is this allegation true? Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a professor of Jewish studies at the City University of New York, said:
“Our social, political and even intellectual existence is not isolated from Christianity, and since Christians celebrate one of their most important religious festivals during the month of December, the festival of Hanukkah donned overwhelming importance for Jews.
“Jews had to find some way in which they could place the accent upon their own identity. And Hanukkah was catapulted from the status of minor festival into one of great importance. We, too, have become involved in Hanukkah gifts, Hanukkah wrappers, Hanukkah parties, Hanukkah savings clubs…”
Herman Wouk, author of This is my God, a religious treatise, and many other works such as The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War, is a Jewish existentialist. He seems to add some weight to Rabbi Rackman’s appraisal:
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 in the calendar year to a great holy day of the Christian faith. This coincidence has all but created a new Hanukkah…
Whereas Hanukkah is not one of the holidays prescribed by God for us to celebrate, the reason to celebrate it is not merely to pacify Jewish children who might feel deprived because Santa Claus doesn’t deliver to Jewish homes. Hanukkah is a holiday to celebrate because it teaches something about God and His love for our people.
From the time of the Babylonian Exile, our people were under foreign domination. From 539 to 333 B.C.E., about two hundred years, we were subjects of the Persian Empire. This vast kingdom, included Syria to the north of Israel and Egypt, which is to the south. The Persians placed a governor in Israel who did not interfere much with the religious practices of our people. He was mainly concerned that we pay taxes to Persia and that we obey the Imperial civil laws. But it was the High Priest who was recognized as the representative of the people. He dealt with the Persian governor. And for the most part, there was little interference from the Emperor.
But the Persian government grew weak and vulnerable. Alexander and his formidable army conquered the Persians and under Greek rule, the system of government changed. Alexander died ten years later, and his kingdom was divided between many rulers, all of them Greek. These kingdoms were far from harmonious. Syria was under the Seleucids and Egypt under the Ptolemies. They were less than friendly to one another and Judea was caught between.
For the better part of the third century B.C.E., we were under the dominion of the Ptolemies. Unlike the Persians, no foreign governor was installed. Instead, the High Priest served as both political ruler and religious representative. Along with this greater measure of self-rule came a certain amount of pressure upon our people to adopt Greek culture and customs. This gave rise to political parties within Israel, some more disposed to the Greco-Syrians and others to the Greco-Egyptians. Wars were frequent. Eventually, Syria conquered the Jewish land. This meant more changes. The Seleucids were even more dedicated to establishing the Greek way of life amongst our people that the Ptolemies had been. Many Jews adopted Greek names. Jews began wearing togas. Even in Jerusalem, a gymnasium was erected and Greek games were introduced.
Antiochus IV, who called himself “Epiphanes” (the visible god) was the despised Syrian ruler. Acting as High Priest, was a hellenized Jew named Joshua, who had taken the Greek name Jason. Jason thought himself to be a moderate, but Antiochus wanted a more committed hellenist in his position and three years later, Menelaus (formerly Menachem) was installed as High Priest.
The Persians only wanted tribute. The Greek successors to Alexander, especially Antiochus IV, shared his vision and arrogant belief in the superiority of “the Greek way of life” called hellenism. While it is true that hellenism encouraged intellectual pursuits and a polite, highly civilized society, it nevertheless involved idolatry and exalted the wisdom of man. 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 under Antiochus Epiphanes. Only those who would renounce the “old ways” could have a place in the idealized Greek society. The rest were treated like barbarians, enemies of the state. The practice of worshipping the God of Israel became a “crime.”
During this time, many of our people were slain and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was defiled. The golden altar, the candlesticks, all the gold and silver utensils were taken from the Temple. And to show his utter contempt for our religion, Antiochus sacrificed a sow in the Temple, offering it to the Greek god, Jupiter.
Meanwhile, war between Greek Egypt and Greek Syria continued. While Syria was advancing in its war with Egypt, Antiochus reluctantly withdrew in response to pressure from the Roman Senate. Judea then became the southern border of Syria. Wanting to keep the boundary with Egypt secure, he issued a decree for all the peoples in his kingdom demanding that they were to worship Grecian gods and to become Greeks. This was accepted by all Antiochus’ subjects, all but the Jews. Our 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…
Some Jews fled from the cities to the hills of Judea, forming themselves into bands of guerrilla fighters. They were faithful to the God of Israel and would not assimilate into Greek culture and idolatry. One such group was led by a family of priests from the town of Modin, near Jerusalem. They were called Hasmoneans, though no one seems to know how that name came about. Unlike the other bands of Jewish resistance fighters, the leader Mattathais and his five sons believed that for self-defense purposes, it was permissible to fight on the Sabbath. Until this time, the Greeks could prevail simply by attacking on the Sabbath. This guerrilla company was valiantly successful in its skirmishes with the Syrian soldiers. They grew in numbers and in the ability to fight. According to the account in the extra-biblical writings, Mattathais died within a year and his son Judah took charge. He was given the nickname, “Maccabee” which means “hammer.” 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, after three years of fighting, the Hasmoneans, under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, vanquished the Syrians in Jerusalem and set about to purify the Temple. 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.
When Judah dedicated the Temple, 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. A special lamp, the menorah, is used.
It is the event of the dedication of the Temple in 165 B.C.E. which Jews around the world commemorate each year in the festival called Hanukkah. While some today maintain that Hanukkah is a minor festival, elevated only by the presence of Christmas in the same season, it was certainly important to Jews before the time of Jesus and yes, even during the first century for Jesus Himself celebrated the Festival of Hanukkah.
We read in the Gospel of John, a reference to Hanukkah:
Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the Temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. (John 10:22, 23)
They celebrated Hanukkah, not as a potato latkes party, but as a solemn time to remember the rededication of the Temple. It became a national festival, as well. The spirit was similar to Independence Day in the U.S., only the character of the feast was religious, not secular. It was observed with ceremonies resembling the Feast of Booths, accompanied by the offering of many sacrifices.
After the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, many Jews apparently lost their zeal for celebrating Hanukkah. It is ironic, that it is those who believe in Jesus, Jews and Gentiles, who can see more significance in this celebration of God’s faithfulness. For those of us who believe in Jesus, believe His words, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (John 2:19)
Jesus was, by these words, speaking of himself as the Temple, the place of sacrifice, and the Holy altar. He was telling the people that while he would be destroyed physically, he would rise from the dead, that the Temple of God might never be defiled again, might never be made rubble. But, instead would stand for all eternity.
Today, Hanukkah is often called “the Festival of Lights.” In Josephus’ writings, we find no mention of the term “Hanukkah.” Instead, he says, “From that time onward unto this day we celebrate the festival calling it ‘Lights'” (Antiquities 12:325). His explanation for the name is that the right to serve God came to the people unexpectedly, like a sudden light.
It is interesting to note that it is traditional to have a shammos candle as part of the Hanukkah menorah. This candle is in addition to the eight candles. “Shammos” means servant. One of the reasons given for having this extra candle is that it can be used to light the others. The eight candies receive their light from the one. It’s role is to serve. The writer of this article believes that the shammos can be regarded as a visual symbol of Jesus, who gives light to all who allow themselves to shine for God. He said of himself, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) We also read, that he was the true light, “…that gives light to every man.” (John 1:9)
In a sense, Rabbi Rackman was correct in saying that in light of Christmas, Hanukkah “was catapulted from the status of minor festival into one of great importance.” It is true that the event of the birth of Jesus gives added understanding of Hanukkah as the “Festival of Lights” as well as the “Feast of Dedication,” for those who have come to know the Light of the world himself, can enter the holy place by his priestly offering (See Hebrews 9 and 10).
This Hanukkah, instead of competing with Christmas or perpetuating nothing more than a cultural expression, why not remember the Temple and the Light of Life?
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.