Hanukkah, today, is an eight-day period of celebration with special songs, foods and special times with family and friends. It is a festival that commemorates the Jewish victory over the Syrian tyrant, Antiochus IV. The word Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah) actually means dedication and refers to the rededication of the temple on 25 Kislev 165 BCE, after it had been desecrated by the Syrian King, Antiochus Epiphanes six years earlier in 171 BCE.
It is a holiday about religious freedom for the Jewish people. They gather friends and family together and sing songs, say blessings, light the Menorah, and exchange gifts. It is a time of remembering their religious heritage, and a time for bringing family together and to celebrate in the home.
It is a reminder of the 2,000 year-old story of one little cruse of oil and the miracle of deliverance that God wrought for His people, Israel.
Hanukkah is not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, but it is often mistaken for it because of the emphasis on gift giving. In the United States it is celebrated with more hoopla then in other countries and in Israel. The reason is that because of all the attention on the holiday spirit, family, and giving of gifts, the Jewish children feel left out during the holidays. In order to compensate for this and the celebration of Christmas that the Christian children have, the Jewish people make this minor holiday more festive than in other places in the world.
Also, this is a minor feast because it was not one of the seven feasts given to Israel by the Lord through Moses when he was on Mt. Sinai. There are two minor feasts: this one, and Purim (which has to do with the book of Esther and the plot of Haman).
Some of the foods are Latkes, fried potatoes in oil, and Sufganiyot, which are jelly donuts. A very popular game for Hanukkah is the dreidel, which is a four-sided top with a specific Hebrew letter on each side: Nun, Gimmel, Heh, and Shin. The letters stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which means, A great miracle happened there. In Israel the letters are Nun, Gimmel Heh and Peh for Nes Gadol Hayah Poh, meaning a great miracle happened here. It was also used as a teaching tool in disguise, because in times and places where the Jewish people were forbidden to teach their religion, the dreidl could be passed off as an innocent toy. A simple example of the game is as follows:
Today Hanukkah can be celebrated in the following ways:
The celebration includes the lighting of the nine branch Menorah, with the center candle being lit first. This candle is called the Shammash, or the servant candle. From that candle you light the other candles from right to left, one each night, until all eight are lit.
Scripture is read during this eight-day festival. From the Torah they read Numbers 7, and from the Prophets Zechariah 2:14-4:7. If Hanukkah falls on the Sabbath, on the 8th day (or the second Sabbath of the Festival), I Kings 7:40-50 is also read.
PRAYERS – Three blessings are recited at Hanukkah:
History of Hanukkah
The timing of this holiday is in the inter-testament period, after the closing of the Jewish Canon of Scripture, with Malachi being the last. So from the close of the Hebrew Scriptures in approximately 400 BCE you have major historical events taking place in ancient history. In 333 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Medes and Persians. When Alexander died in 323 BCE his kingdom was divided among his four generals. The two most important being Syrian Greek Seleucids and the Ptolemies Greeks in Egypt. The Ptolemies controlled Israel until 198 BCE, when the Greek Seleucids took control of Israel. In 175 BCE Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) came to the throne in Syria. His policy was radical Hellenization of his entire empire. He desired to replace everything that wasnít Greek with Greek culture and Greek religion. As a result, he attempted to eradicate the Jewish faith. He prohibited Jewish spiritual practices. He attempted to destroy all copies of the Bible, the Sabbath was outlawed, circumcision was forbidden, and he required everyone to worship the Greek god, Zeus.
In 171 BCE, his crowning outrage-his supreme atrocity, was to erect a statue of Zeus in the temple, and sacrifice a pig on the altar in the temple compound itself. Greek Syrian soldiers would go from Jewish town to town, and find a Jewish sympathizer to offer a pig on the town altar. On one occasion they came to the village of Modin. An old priest by the name of Mattathias killed the sympathizer and his five sons killed the other soldiers and then fled to the Judean hills and formed a guerrilla army. This triggered the uprising known as the Maccabean revolt. Maccabaee comes from the Hebrew word Macab or hammer. Judah, the oldest son of Mattathis, became the commander of the guerrilla army and was know as Judah Maccabee, Judah the Hammer.
In the year 165 BCE Judah liberated Jerusalem from the Greeks and the temple from its defilement. The Temple was then rededicated for worship and was celebrated with great public rejoicing that lasted for 8 days. Judah Maccabee then declared that future celebrations of Hanukkah should last for 8 days as well.
The main references to Hanukkah come from two main sources: (1) Daniel 8:9-14; 11:21-35; (2) the books of I & II Maccabees. Other sources would include Josephus and the Talmud.
The traditional names for Hanukkah are: (1) first, of course, Hanukkah (Channukah), which is a Hebrew word meaning dedication. The (2) second common name is Hag Haorim, which means the Feast of Lights. This expression is found in the writings of the first century Jewish historian, Josephus. This name is based upon a legend. Supposedly, when the Jews rededicated the Temple and wanted to rekindle the lampstand, they found only enough oil for one day. It would take eight days to make a new supply. They decided to kindle the Menorah anyway and burn the remaining one-day oil supply. By a miracle, according to the legend, the oil lasted for 8 daysÖthus, the name representing the Feast of Lights.
So as tradition would have it, the rabbis felt they should remember the miracle that occurred by celebrating for 8 days. That 8-day celebration would be accompanied by the name The Festival of the Lights. One other Rabbinic tradition states this.
“the sages decreed on the 8 day festival…because they realized that the miracle of the lights would shine forever with a message of hope, because it was part of the light that would glow with the coming of the Messiah.”
“The lampstand is lit to give hope and inspiration to the Jew because ”the light of the Messiah must burn brightly in our hearts”.”
Donít miss the rabbiís connection of the lights of Hanukkah with the coming of the Messiah.
Old Testament References to Hanukkah
The Hebrew Bible, even though it does not mention the celebration of Hanukkah, does speak of the events that lead up to Hanukkah. In Daniel 8:9-14 you can see what Daniel saw in his vision of the little horn, who was Antiochus Ephiphanes. Also see Daniel 11:21-35.
Gospel References to Hanukkah
When we look at the Gospels in John 10:22-23 we find this:
And it was the feast of the dedication at Jerusalem: it was winter; and Yeshua was walking in the temple in Solomonís Porch.
First note that Yeshua himself took part in the feast of Hanukkah. Even though it was not a Biblical holiday, Yeshua did celebrate the feast with the people.
This portion of Scripture is preceded by John 7:1 – John 10:21 that deals with events in the life of Messiah during the Feast of Tabernacles. As an historical footnote, the 8 days of Hanukkah arose from the 8 days of the Feast of Tabernacles. The Jewish people in 165 BCE had not been able to observe the latter because the Syrian Greeks were still in control of Jerusalem. So once the Temple was dedicated, they continued to observe the 8 days of the Feast of Tabernacles, three months later than customary, as Hanukkah. From that came the concept of the 8 days of Hanukkah.
In John, chapters 8-10, is the Feast of Tabernacles, the seventh and last of the Feasts of the Lord. In John 8:12; 9:5, Yeshua presents Himself as the Light of the World. Let me give you some background to these chapters. During the first century, and before there were two festivals that were practiced during the Feast of Tabernacles, we would call them rabbinic in nature because they were not festivals prescribed by the Lord.
Now the Gospel of John in chapter 10:24-33, still in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles, but now it was three months later and the time of the Feast of Dedication (or Hanukkah). Yeshua uses the concept of lights and the 8 days that originated from the Feast of Tabernacles, and he picks up from there. Verse 24: The charge of obscurity: Look what they say,
How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.
Yeshua responds in verse 25-30:
Verse 25: First, that He had been clear with them in two ways ñ by His words and His works.
Verse 26: They are not His sheep because they have not believed on Him, and thus they do not understand his statements.
Verse 27-29: But His sheep, believers, do recognize Him, understand His words, know exactly who He claims to be and follow Him.
They have accepted Him, they have Eternal life and can not lose their Salvation for two reasons: (a) they cannot be snatched out of the Messiahís hand, (b) nor can they be snatched out of the Fathers hand.
Verse 30: With that Yeshua makes His fourth and very clear declaration:
I and the Father are one.
Verse 31: His statements were so clear that they picked up stones to stone Him. Why? Because they understood what he said to be blasphemy – making oneself equal with God. See verse 33.
Well, so much for the charge of obscurity; there was no question now who Yeshua claimed to be.
How We Can Practice Hanukkah Today
Today Jewish believers celebrate Hanukkah to remember their religious freedom, history and the culture of the Jewish nation. But foremost, they see the Messiah in Hanukkah. They also tie this in with I John 1:5-9, which also speaks of Yeshua as the light of the world. His followers walk in the light and not in the darkness.