What Is Hanukkah? – A Season of Miracles and Light

The Fellowship  |  November 18, 2022

Hanukkah is one of the most joyous festivals of the Jewish calendar. Learn more about this celebration of God’s wondrous miracles and the many important lessons Hanukkah has for both Christians and Jews.

A Brief History

At Hanukkah, Jews commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over the Greek/Syrian forces of King Antiochus in the year 165 B.C.E. That regime sought to impose paganism on the Jewish people. They put a pagan idol, Zeus, in the Temple, and forced Jews to eat non-kosher food. This was the first time that enemies of the Jewish people were trying to destroy them spiritually, rather than physically.

Engraving of Antiochus carrying a large stolen menorah.
Engraving of Antiochus carrying a large stolen menorah. (1 Maccabees 1:21-24)
Source: Wikimedia

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 Jewish month of Kislev— a date that usually falls during December on the Gregorian calendar—this undermanned, untrained rag-tag group regained control over the Temple, cleansed it from defilement, and rededicated it. That’s what Hanukkah means: “rededication.”

In the Temple, there was an eternal flame that had to stay lit all the time. But when the Jews came into the Temple to light the flame, there was only enough oil to keep it burning for one day. After they lit it, however, a miracle occurred—the lamp remained lit for eight days until the new oil arrived. This is how Hanukkah became known as the “Festival of Lights.”

Victory of Light Over Darkness

The story of Hanukkah is the victory of light over darkness. The story of the Maccabees is the story of all people of faith. It is our story. What’s more, the New Testament (John 10:22) speaks of Hanukkah being celebrated by Jesus and his disciples. Hanukkah directly connects us to the Jewish faith and practices of Jesus, and, more importantly, to his work.

Matthias Appealing to Jewish Refugees.
Matthias appealing to Jewish Refugees by Gustav Dore, 1866.
Source: Wikimedia

The battle between the Jews and the Greeks that we recall on Hanukkah was more than a physical battle; it was a battle of ideals and values. The Greeks proclaimed that all that matters is what we can see, touch, and understand. The Jews believed that what matters most cannot be seen, touched, or understood. The Greeks believed that beauty was holy. The Jews maintained that holiness is beautiful. The Greeks worshiped the physical body; the Jews cherished the soul.

The ideals of the Greeks encouraged immorality, idolatry, and selfishness. The Jews stood for goodness, godliness, and kindness. This was a battle between good and evil, darkness and light. While the Greeks tried to extinguish the light of the Torah, a great miracle happened and the small group of remaining loyal Jews were able to conquer the darkness.

Discover the many spiritual lessons Christians can learn from this special eight-day holiday that Jesus celebrated (John 10:22) in this Bible study.

A Miraculous Victory

However, it’s critical to understand that this battle was not won in a natural way. That wouldn’t have been enough to completely eradicate the ideals of the Greeks. Instead, it was won in a supernatural way. As we recall in our Hanukkah prayers, God placed the many in the hands of the few, the mighty in the hands of the weak. God fought the battles for the Jews who fought with their faith.

The attitude of these fighters can be found in their chosen name. They became known as the Maccabees, ultimately led by Judah the Maccabee. Maccabee can mean “hammer,” and indeed the Maccabees hammered their enemies, fighting off the greatest, mightiest army of the time. Yet Maccabee is also a Hebrew acronym for the phrase: “Who among the gods is like you, LORD?” (Exodus 15:11). This was the battle call of those brave fighters, and it was also the source of their strength.

Judah Maccabee in an 1860 woodcut. The family’s tomb complex, ancient sources say, was a striking landmark visible from the sea, 18 miles away (photo credit: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)
Judah Maccabee in an 1860 woodcut. The family’s tomb complex, ancient sources say, was a striking landmark visible from the sea, 18 miles away
Photo credit: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

On Hanukkah, we celebrate the miracle of the triumph of the Maccabees over the Greeks, which is also the victory of light over darkness. Appropriately, we light candles in the darkness to commemorate the event. Even just one candle can dispel so much darkness.

As we gaze at the candles each night during Hanukkah, we remember that the way to fight darkness is by adding more light. It’s not by might, but by God’s spirit and light that redemption will come into the world. When we affirm our faith in God, we continue the legacy of the Maccabees and merit the same Divine assistance afforded to them

Hanukkah is one of the most joyous festivals of the Jewish calendar. But it also has many important lessons for both Christians and Jews. Explore the lessons to be learned from the celebration of light.

Sharing Our Light

When lighting the menorah, the custom prescribed by the Jewish sages is to “publicize the miracle of Hanukkah.” We do this by lighting our menorahs in a place where it is most visible from the outside. That might be in front of our biggest window or even just outside our homes in specially made glass display cases. Moreover, many communities arrange public lighting ceremonies, often with menorahs built on a large scale. We do our utmost to make sure that the light of Hanukkah is seen from near and far.

However, we must ask why we follow this custom. We don’t find the idea of being public with our faith anywhere else in Judaism. There is no public display of eating matzah on Passover or blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Why are we so intent on making our Hanukkah ritual so public?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompanied by the Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch (Rabbi of the Kotel), lighting the second Hanukkah candle at the Western Wall.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) accompanied by the Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch (Right: Rabbi of the Kotel), lighting the second Hanukkah candle at the Western Wall.

One answer is that the very nature of the Hanukkah story involved those who were proud of their Jewish faith and those who wished to hide it so they would be accepted into Greek society. It was those who stood up for their values by holding onto their faith that brought about the Hanukkah victory. When we light our menorahs in public, we boldly declare that we are proud to be Jewish.

On another level, the idea of lighting our menorahs in public is about shining light into the heart of darkness from our homes. This affirms that the light begins in the home. Home is the first place that we must illuminate with kindness, goodness, and the Word of God. However, it is not enough to keep the light to ourselves. We are meant to be a “light for the nations.” When we place our menorah lights for all to see, we affirm our obligation to share our light with the world. We remember that even one candle can dispel much darkness while all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish one flame.

A third reason for publicizing the miracle is because we are always meant to make known God’s great deeds. It is a statement of praise and gives glory to God when we share the miracles He has done. We shed light on gloomy situations and provide a ray of hope in the darkness

For some inspirational reflections on this Season of Lights, please download our Haunkkah Devotional Guide.

Celebrating Hanukkah Today

As mentioned, the main practice during the celebration of Hanukkah is the lighting of the menorah. In some families, one person represents the entire household and lights one menorah on everyone’s behalf. In other families, each family member lights his or her own menorah. Either way, it is best to light the menorah in the presence of other people as this helps us fulfill our duty to make public the miracle of Hanukkah.

Elderly Jewish couple lighting menorah together on Hanukkah.
Isaak and Isabela Zendel celebrating Hanukkah and lighting a menorah together.

We begin the first night by lighting one candle, adding a candle each subsequent night for the eight days of Hanukkah. It’s important that the candles are evenly spaced apart and about the same height so one can easily tell how many candles are lit instead of confusing the menorah for one big torch.

Each night, in addition to the Hanukkah candles, there is an extra candle called the shamash, which means “helper.” Since the Hanukkah candles are considered holy, they aren’t allowed to be used for any other purpose, like a reading light or lighting another candle. The shamash is used to light the candles instead. The Hanukkah candles are designated exclusively for spiritual introspection and inspiration.

Find out how much you know about the history and traditions of Hanukkah with our quiz.

Gifts Often Given at Hanukkah

Gifts are often given at Hanukkah, especially to children. One custom is to give out Hanukkah gelt, or money, to children. This is to teach them that there is reward for studying the Bible — even under difficult situations. Today, we often give chocolate coins or gifts instead, but the underlying lesson that Torah study is a most worthwhile pursuit remains the same.

A bowl of dreidels and gold coins for Hanukkah.
A bowl of dreidels and gold chocolate coins for Hanukkah.

Another tradition is playing dreidel, a game using a small square spinning top. Tradition links this game to the time when the pagan king Antiochus Epiphanes was oppressing the Jewish people and trying to force them to assimilate into Greek culture. Antiochus made it illegal to study the Torah, upon punishment of death.

It is said that Jews who studied in defiance of the ban would conceal their activity by having children play games with a toy outside the home, and the children would warn those inside studying the Bible whenever an official or inspector was within sight.

Written on the dreidel are the four Hebrew letters of nun, gimmel, hay, and shin, which form the acronym for the phrase Nes Ga0dol Hayah Sham, “A great miracle happened there,” referring to the miracle of the oil burning in the Temple. In Israel, this liturgy is changed to, “A great miracle happened here.”

Recipes for Hanukkah

It is traditional during Hanukkah to eat foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (potato pancakes) and special jelly-filled donuts called Sufganiyah. This recalls the miracle of the oil from the Hanukkah story.

Below are some easy-to-follow recipes for making your own latkes or Hanukkah cookies.

Recipes for Hanukkah

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