Chanukah means “dedication” and celebrates the miracle of a day’s worth of oil used in the Temple lasting for eight days. The holiday commemorates the re-dedication of the (second) Temple in Jerusalem after it had been defiled under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
BACKGROUND: Judaism had been outlawed and in 167 BC Antiochus Epiphanes ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple and for pigs to be sacrificed. The sacrifice of pigs to the Greek gods was standard ritual practice in the Ancient Greek religion. Antiochus’s actions provoked a large-scale revolt.
THE MACCABEE BROTHERS: Mattathias (Mattityahu), a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus Epiphanes. Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”). By 166 BC Mattathias had died and Judah took his place as leader.
THE VICTORY: By 165 BC the Maccabean revolt was successful, and the Temple was liberated and rededicated. After the forces of Antiochus had been driven from the Temple, the Maccabees discovered that almost all of the olive oil used to keep the 7-branch Menorah in the Temple lit had been profaned and couldn’t be used. They found a single vial that was still sealed by the High Priest with enough oil to keep the Menorah in the Temple lit for only one day but it took 8 days for new oil to be pressed from olives and made ready for use in the Menorah. The miracle that Chanukah commemorates is that one days worth of oil burned for eight days; enough time for the new oil to be pressed and made ready.
HISTORICAL ACCOUNTS: The story of Chanukah is preserved in the books of the First and Second Maccabees which describe in detail the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the menorah. These books are not part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) but are found in the Apocryphal books. The Jewish historian Josephus also writes about this in his renowned book, Antiquities of the Jews.
Chanukah is also mentioned in the New Testament in John 10;
“At that time the Feast of Dedication [Chanukah] took place at Jerusalem. It was winter and Jesus was walking in the Temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews 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
HOW WE CELEBRATE: Jews celebrate by lighting an 8-branch candleabra with an additional candle each night for 8 nights. The middle candle, called the Shamash is the ‘helper’ candle that lights the others. We also eat foods fried in oil for each of the 8 nights and depending where Jews originate from, those foods differ. Ashkenazi Jews who are of Eastern European descent eat “latkes” which are are shallow-fried pancakes of grated potato, flour and egg and usually flavoured with grated onion. Latkes may be topped with a variety of condiments ranging from savory (e.g. sour cream) to sweet (e.g. apple saucer) or they may be served plain. Sephardic Jews who are of Middle Eastern descent eat various kinds of doughnuts and fritters, depending on the country of origin. In Israel, “sufganiyot” (סופגניות) are eaten, which are small round doughnuts filled with jelly or custard and topped with powered sugar. Like most Jewish celebrations, Chanukah is a time for family to gather and to share special food. It is also a time for games with a four sided top called a “dreydl” that has the four first letters of the expression “nes gadol haya sham” (נס גדול היה שם) which means ‘a great miracle happened there’
NOT JEWISH CHRISTMAS: Chanukah is not one of the major holidays of the Jewish Calendar as are Passover, Rosh Hoshanah (New Year), Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) or Shevouth (Feast of Weeks / Pentecost). It is a minor festival but because it falls shortly before Christmas some families have elevated it to a significant occasion. While gifts are not traditionally given for Chanukah, parents usually give their children “Chanukah gelt” (Yiddish for ‘money’) and oftenthese gifts of money are associated with their children’s dedication to their studies. Chocolate coins in little sacks are also often given.
REMEMBERING GOD: Like other Jewish holidays, Chanukah commemorates God acting on behalf of His people. The blessing that is said each night as the Chanukiah is lit (usually by the children) refers to God having ‘wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old’. As we celebrate this season, be it Chanukah or Christmas and for some, both may we remember God and all He has done for us. And may we be a people marked by thankfullness.
! חג אורים שמח
Happy Festival of Lights !