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Also known as the “Festival of Lights,” Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday celebrating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the Second Century B.C. Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for “dedication.”

The history of the holiday is tied to the time when Israel was, again, struggling for existence. It is believed that after a successful revolt against a tyrannical monarch, the victorious Jewish community could find very little pure olive oil to light the Menorah, only enough for one day. However, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify more oil!

Jewish people light a candle on each of the eight evenings in remembrance of God’s provision. They also play games, exchange gifts, have family dinners and attend plays and concerts at synagogues and schools.


Jewish Tradition

The lighting of the Hanukkah lamp is to take place between “sunset and until there is no wayfarer left in the street.” The lamp should be placed outside the entrance of the house. If a person lives in an upper story, it should be set on the window nearest the street. This placement it to publically affirm the Hanukkah miracle.

The entire Hallel (a verbatim recitation from Psalms  113-118) is said on each of the eight days. The reading of the law is from the portion of the Torah which describes the sacrifices brought by the princes at the dedication of the sanctuary, and the kindling of the candelabrum or menorah (Num. 7:1-8:4).

Maoz Zur Yeshuati (“Mighty Rock of my Salvation”), a hymn composed in Germany by a 11th-13th Century poet, is usually sung in the Ashkenazi ritual after the kindling of the lights. The melody of this hymn is a little later than the lyrics and was adopted from a German folksong popular in the middle of the 15th century. This hymn extols God as Israel’s deliverer, which is the precise theme of this holiday. The Sephardim recite Psalm 30.

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 Why 9 Candles?

The eight cups that hold the Hanukkah candles are arranged in a row, one for each night of the holiday. Every menorah has one additional cup, a ninth cup, which is located in the center or to one side and is usually slightly elevated.

The ninth candle is called “the shammash,” or, “one who serves.” Jewish tradition says the purpose of the shammash is that “Judaism gives light to the world.” At Hanukkah we light an additional candle on each day. We use the shammash to light the other candles until ALL the candles give off their light. So on the first night of Hanukkah, after sundown, the shammash candle is lit, which in turn is used to kindle one candle of the Menorah. The second night, the shammash again is lit and is used to light two candles, etc. The appropriate number of candles is placed in the menorah from right to left, yet they are lit from left to right.


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The Dreidel

The Israelites were not allowed to worship during the Maccabean struggle for freedom to serve YHWH. If the Greeks caught them studying the Torah or praying they would be put to death. The Hebrews thought up a plan to enable them to worship and serve YHWH. Next to their Holy books, they kept little tops, or dreidels. If a Greek came by, they quickly put away their books and pretended to be playing the dreidel game. The dreidel saved many of their lives.

A “dreidel” is a four-sided spinning top, made of wood, clay or plastic. A Hebrew letter is written on each of its four sides. The four letters on the dreidel include the nun, gimmel, hey, and shin. These letters represent the Hebrew phrase, “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” (A Great Miracle Happened There). Dreidels in Israel change one letter to read the phrase “A Great Miracle Happened Here” (“Nes Gadol Hayah Poh”).



The History of the Hanukkah Celebration

The story of Hanukkah is not recorded in the Bible but it is recorded in the Apocryphal books of 1-2 Maccabees. Messiah Jesus’ observance of the Feast of “Dedication” (Hanukkah) can be found in John 10:22-23.

In 168 B.C. Antiochus, the Syrian emperor, came from the north and defeated Egypt. Before he could enjoy the “spoils” of his victory he was compelled by powerful Rome to withdraw. Angry at this reversal, he came against the small country of Israel. He set out to destroy Judaism by making its observance illegal. He also wanted to move against Israel since its location was/is so strategic, as a land bridge joining Africa, Asia, and Europe. The one who dominates Israel often has a strategic point of control in the Middle East.

Antiochus Epiphanes was one of the most anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, anti-God rulers in history − he became a ruler in 175 B.C. There were several Syrian kings named Antiochus. This particular man chose the title, Epiphanes, to distinguish him. This is Greek for God “Manifest,” which indicates the extent of his arrogance against the one true God.

In the fashion of many of his contemporaries, Antiochus was obsessed with delusions of deity. His enemies mockingly referred to him as Epimanes, meaning “madman,” in response to his cruelty.

Antiochus tried to Hellenize Israel. He looked on Hellenization as a way of integrating the Jews into his empire socially and therefore unifying the empire.

In Antiochus’ attempt to destroy the worship of the one God and the Levitical sacrificial system, he:

  • sent an army to Jerusalem to dedicate the Temple to the gods of Olympia and Zeus in December of 168 B.C. (some say 167 B.C.).
  • organized an attack on Jerusalem on the Sabbath, knowing the Jews would not fight.
  • destroyed much of the city and slaughtered men, women and children.
  • defiled the Jewish Temple by offering a pig on the altar to Zeus and Olympia and sprinkled its blood in the Holy of Holies. The swine’s broth was poured on the Holy Scrolls of the Law. The Scrolls, containing the word of God were then ripped in pieces and burned.
  • enslaved & murdered many Jewish people.
  • ordered mini-altars to be erected in every town. His troops then ordered all local communities to worship and eat the flesh of pigs to prove their conversion from Judaism. The alternative to eating pig was death.
  • forbid all Jews from practicing their faith including circumcision, observance of the Sabbath, and sacrifices.
  • had a bearded image of Jupiter placed in the temple in Jerusalem.

His goal was to defeat Israel’s armies and humiliate their God believing people so he could easily assimilate them to Greek culture (1 Macc 1:41-64; 2 Macc 6:1-11).


The Maccabees

The Maccabean revolt began when a delegate of Antiochus IV named Appellas attempted to force Mattathias Maccabee, a priest who lived in Modiin, to sacrifice to a pagan deity. Mattathias refused, but another Jew volunteered to perform the sacrifice. Outraged and overcome by righteous anger, Mattathias pulled out his sword and killed both the Seleucid delegate and the errant Jew upon the altar, and thus the Maccabean revolt began (1 Macc 2:1-48).

God raised up a band of Jewish guerrilla fighters led by Judah Maccabee, one of Mattathias’ sons. Although completely outnumbered −a handful of men against approximately 65,000 and armed with pitchforks and swords, they attacked at night repeatedly until God enabled them to defeat the overwhelming armies of Antiochus, whose soldiers were the best-fed and best-trained troops in the East. Since the Maccabees were outnumbered and under-supplied, they turned to more creative devices and relied on their knowledge of the hill country and employed guerrilla warfare.

Within three years the Syrian invaders were driven from the land and the focus changed to the cleansing of the Temple. There were four major battles against the Syrians before the Temple was regained. On the 25th day of Kislev (November/December) in 165 B.C. (some scholars say 164 B.C.) exactly three years to the day after its desecration, the Temple and the altar were rededicated. Judah also commanded that the pagan altar be torn down and Yahweh’s altar rebuilt (1 Macc 4:26-61). This victory by the Maccabees over the Syrians was just a foretaste of what Messiah would bring.


Christmas and Hanukkah

Both Hanukkah and Christmas originated in the same land, by the same people (Israel and the Jews). Both commemorate a historical event. The Servant is prominent in both holidays.

In modern Israel, Hanukkah symbolizes the victory of the few over the many. Throughout history God has worked in the past on behalf of Israel, so He will continue to work for their future. God has promised to bless those who bless the Jewish people and curse those who curse them (Genesis 12).


Text compiled by David Brewer