The joyous festival of Hanukkah begins on 25 Kislev of the Jewish calendar. It celebrates two miracles --a great Jewish military victory and a miraculous supply of oil for the Temple.
Hanukkah marks the Macabees' long-ago defeat of the much-larger Greek-Syrian army that had invaded Israel. The Macabees were just a small group of Jews led by Mattathias and his five sons, including Judah Macabee. But they organized themselves into a guerrilla army and, with God's help, proved stronger than their powerful enemy.
Following the Macabees' victory, the Jews rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and, once again, were able to worship freely.
Although Hanukkah celebrates a military victory, its major symbol — the Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah — reminds us of the miracle of the oil. As the Jews purified the Holy Temple, they found only one flask of the oil for the eternal lamp — enough to keep it burning for just one day. But a miracle occurred, and the oil lasted eight days and nights until more oil could be brought from afar. That miracle explains why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days and also why Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights.
The Hanukkah menorah holds nine candles, one for each of the eight nights and an additional candle that’s used to light the others. One candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, two on the second night, until all eight candles are lit on the eighth night.
Hanukkah is a time to celebrate with family and friends, to eat yummy holiday treats, to give gifts (especially to children) and to play the dreidel game.
Hanukkah will be celebrated on the following dates:
- December 8 - 16, 2012 (Jewish year 5772)
- November 27 - December 5, 2013 (Jewish year 5773)
- December 16 - 24, 2014 (Jewish year 5774)
- December 6 - 14, 2015 (Jewish year 5775)
Hanukkah is one of the happier Jewish festivals. We probably wouldn't call it a holy day, because holy has the implication of being separate. God is holy; He is separate. The Sabbath is holy. And what usually defines the festivals and the holy days is the cessation of work. You are not to work on holy days like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or the first and last days of Tabernacles (Sukkot). But on Hanukkah, you are allowed to work, so you go to your office or to school. So Hanukkah is a regular day — not quite holy in the same sense as these other holidays and also not biblical.
It does not appear in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) because the events surrounding it occurred in the year 165 B.C.E., after the closing of the Hebrew Bible. (Since Jews do not measure time in terms of Jesus' life and death, we use the term B.C.E., meaning "before the common era," rather than B.C.) But in the New Testament, it is mentioned once, in John 10:22, which says that people were gathered around at the festival of dedication. That, of course, was 200 or so years later, in the 1st century after the common era (A.D.), after the time of Jesus.
Hanukkah, however, is seen as an important holiday and festival, especially in America, because it is seen as a kind of tradeoff for Jewish kids who do not celebrate Christmas. Can you imagine being Jewish in a country where all your friends are celebrating Christmas, families are coming together, and kids are getting toys and presents? They look forward to that season, and you're a Jewish kid who doesn't have a holiday. So I think — this is my own personal view — that the holiday of Hanukkah has become more important than ever in the last 100 years. And a good part of that has been to provide Jewish children with a holiday of their own around Christmas.
But, beyond this, let's take a look at the history and roots of Hanukkah to find out why it became a holiday at all.
The Military Victory
At Hanukkah, we commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over the Greek/Syrian forces of King Antiochus in the year 165 B.C.E. That regime, those oppressors, sought to impose paganism on the Jewish people.
There were some Jews who assimilated, who accepted and accommodated to that culture. They thought — "Well, this is Greece, this is Rome, this is the way of modernity…that old way of the Bible is passé, it's antiquated. It's time to move on." And they tried to convince the Jews through all sorts of means the value of paganism over the Bible, over Judaism. They put a pagan idol, Zeus, in the Temple, and they forced Jews to eat non-kosher food. They forbade circumcision, which the Bible says is the sign of the covenant between God and Israel. Many Jews tried to accommodate to this culture that had been forced on them.
Finally, though, there was a group of people who said to their fellow Jews, "Hey, enough here! We cannot accommodate to this impurity of putting a pagan god into the Temple, of eating non-kosher, of disobeying the Bible, of being immodest. That's not the culture in which we were brought up. We're not going to take this anymore — we're going to stand up for the Jewish values and the Bible that brought us to this place." A group called the Maccabees, led by a man named Mattathias and his brothers, revolted against these Hellenistic authorities. And by the 25th day of the month of Kislev — the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, but usually this date falls during December — they regained control over the Temple, cleansed it from the defilement, and rededicated it. And that's what Hanukkah means, "rededication."
The Spiritual Victory
Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday because we see in the Bible that anytime there was a dedication of the Temple, it was an eight-day celebration. So, when they regained the Temple and took out all the impurities and idols, they had a celebration that lasted for eight days. And this is more than just the celebration of victory in a physical battle. Zechariah 4:6 says, "'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty." This became an important verse for Hanukkah, and is in fact written on the menorah in Jerusalem that stands across from the Knesset, Israel's parliament. It serves to remind us not just of the military victory, but of the ultimate triumph of God and the spiritual victory of the Jews over their oppressors.
The Miracle of the Oil
There is also the reason that people are most familiar with. In the Temple, there was an eternal flame that had to be lit and stay lit all the time. Walk into any synagogue today and you will see something commemorating that eternal flame, though now it's usually a light bulb. This signifies that God's presence is there all the time, in the same way that we light an eternal flame in memory of a president or great person to signify that their spirit never dies.
So, when they came into the Temple to light the eternal flame, there was only one flask of clean, of pure olive oil to use — enough to keep the flame burning for one day. You can only use pure oil, not oil that had been touched by the pagans and used for sacrifices to the pagan gods. And they knew they did not have enough and that it would take eight days to go out and get more oil.
But they went ahead and lit the flame anyway, which sends a beautiful message of trusting in God. Some might have said, "Why bother? It will go out anyway after a day, and then we'll have to wait for the oil." But they trusted in God, and a miracle occurred — the lamp that was only to last for one day stayed lit for eight days until the new oil came in. This is how Hanukkah became the "festival of lights."
The Importance of Hanukkah
I once had a Christian pastor friend who said he thinks that Hanukkah is really a critical holiday for Christians, too. Why, I asked — I knew about the reference in John chapter 10, but nothing more. He said that if the Jewish Maccabees had not risen up against their oppressors, then secularism and paganism would have controlled the Jewish people. And if it would have controlled the Jewish people, Jesus would not have been able to be born as a Jew, to live a Jewish life, to see the Temple, and have the Bible. Judaism would have been wiped out.
He's right that Hanukkah is a very important holiday. There is an attempt in every generation to rid the world of the Jewish people. And if not, there are those who want to accommodate and negotiate and be flexible. Then there are those who say they can do that sometimes, but there are times when you must draw a line in the sand. When they try to take away my faith I cannot accommodate, I cannot adjust, and I cannot compromise. The Maccabees drew that line in the sand, and they triumphed. If not for their triumph, Judaism would have been gotten rid of by those authorities, and Jesus the Jew would not have been around 165 years later.
How Hanukkah is celebrated today
During Hanukkah, we light the menorah — one candle each night representing the miracle of that day, so that by the end of the eight-day holiday we have eight candles lit. We place the menorah by a window so that people can see the miracle that happened here. The liturgy for Hanukkah differs for Jews living in Israel and in the diaspora (meaning outside of Israel). Outside of Israel, we say, "A great miracle happened there." In Israel, we say, "A great miracle happened here." There is also a custom of giving gifts, especially to children.
The meaning of Hanukkah
What is the meaning of Hanukkah? As we have seen, it really has several meanings.
The first is religious liberty — the right of people to celebrate their holy days and worship freely, to practice their faith. That right is being challenged even today — and, in some countries, Christians are more threatened than Jews. This is something Christians and Jews ought to be able to, and can, work on together.
Number two, the Jews' rededication of the Temple after it was defiled should remind us that each of us is a small temple, with God's presence in our hearts. And we need to rededicate ourselves to God — to purify our hearts, to change.
Third, Hanukkah teaches us we must separate and pull out the good parts of the culture in which we live, while, at the same time, being able to say of the bad things, "that's not for me." We have to discern, to pick and choose, the values of America we really want for ourselves and our children. Because the forces of secularism are so strong, this takes a strong personality and family background. It was the same in ancient times — "Hellenism" was a very attractive option for a lot of Jews, just as accommodating to secular culture is today.
The final dimension is trust in God. It took great faith for the Maccabees to rise up against this great Hellenist society. And it also took great courage and great trust to light that first candle knowing that it is going to go out in 24 hours. It took strength and spiritual tenacity to say, "I am going to light this candle in the darkness anyway. What happens in a day from now I don't know. God may work a miracle, or maybe He won't, but I know that I can and need to light this candle in the darkness." And to me there is a message there: we need to light the candle in the darkness when we have the opportunity to do so.