Hannukah is not one of the set festivals that must be celebrated by commandment according to the Jewish Tanak (Hebrew Bible) but is considered a minor festival however the festival was given adequate importance to the life of Judaism. The set festivals are Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), Rosh ha Shannah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
The celebration for Hanukkah is documented in both a primary and secondary source. The Septuagint or Greek version of the two historical Books of the Maccabees is the secondary source while the Talmud or oral law is the primary source document which discusses Hanukkah. The Bavli or Babylonian Talmud, sedarim Moed (set feast) and Tractate Shabbat 21b discusses Hanukkah. In the Talmud only three lines are devoted to the historical events leading up to the celebration in the Mishna portion of the Talmud while three pages of the Gemara portion of the Talmud detail when, where and how to light the Hanukkiyah or the Hanukkah Menorah candle stand.
The Talmudic sages called Amoraim who edited the Talmud between 188 CE and 200 CE decided that the focus should be on the miracle of the oil rather than the miracle of the defeat to the Syrian army. The sages felt that the victory of the small Jewish army over the large sophisticated Syrian army still had a human element to it while the small quantity of oil that burned for 8 days did so supernaturally and showed divine intervention.
The premise for Hanukkah is two-fold which are the small Jewish army defeated the larger Syrian army and the one day container of olive oil that lasted for 8 days until more olive oil was dedicated and made available.
The miracle of the oil is the central message of Hanukkah while the central message of Christmas is the miracle birth of a Savior. Both messages are completely different however both messages have the element of the miracle working power of Adonai. The secondary message of Hanukkah is the victory obtained over a mighty army while the secondary message for Christmas is “Adonai deciding to forgive mankind for the sin committed in the garden of Eden.”
History of Hanukkah
Hanukkah which means “dedication” in the Hebrew language is celebrated for eight consecutive days beginning on the 25 of Kislev which corresponds to November through December on the Gregorian calendar.
The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The battle began in the ancient archaeological City of Modiin located midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The modern city of Modiin is constructed on top of the archaeological ruins of the ancient city of Modiin. In 168 BCE the ancient Jewish temple of Jerusalem located in ancient Modiin a close enough Moshav of Jerusalem was seized by Antiochus IV a successor of Alexander the Great. The Jewish Temple was desecrated and many Jews were ordered to bow to Greek gods and to eat pork.
The rebellion against Antiochus began when a Hasmonean Priest, the aging Mattathias or Matisyahu in 167 BCE refused to eat pork and to bow to the Greek gods. Mattathias had five sons who became the Maccabee family. Maccabee means “the hammer.” Thus his son Judah or Yahuda in Hebrew who assumed leadership finished the job so to speak after his father's death and was called Judah the hammer or Judah Maccabee because of his great fighting ability.
Antiochus IV defiled the Jewish temple and forbade the practice of Judaism. When Judah Maccabee recaptured the temple using guerrilla warfare he and his small army purged the temple, literally cleaned it and began repair of all the broken items. The menorah or candle stand was used again but there was only enough consecrated olive oil for only one day but when the oil was lit it burned for 8 days until more oil was consecrated to be used. This is the significance for the eight-branch menorah during Hanukkah, the eight days of observance, festival foods all fried in oil, to commemorate the eternal covenant between God and the Jews but also to commemorate the miracle of the oil.
An eight branch menorah called a Chanukiah is used for Hanukkah with a ninth holder in the center section to store the “shamash” the helper candle used to light one candle each night. Otherwise the traditional six stem menorah is used for shabbat and throughout the rest of the year. On the first night one candle is lit using the helper candle, then one candle each night for eight nights until the entire menorah is fully lit.
There are three Hanukkah blessings recited each night when the candles are lit.
Baruch ata Adonai, Elohenu melech ha-olam asher kidshanu be-mitzvotav, ve-tzivanu le-hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.
Blessed are you, Lord our G_d, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us by His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.
Baruch ata Adonai, Elohenu melech ha-olam she-asa nisim la-avotenu ba-yamim ha-hem ba-zeman ha-zeh.
Blessed are you, Lord our G_d, King of the Universe, who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season.
Baruch ata Adonai, Elohenu melech ha-olam she-hecheyanu, ve-kiyemanu, ve-higiyanu la-zeman ha-zeh.
Blessed are you, Lord our G_d, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.
These blessing statements are so poignant and commemorative that each statement rehearses not only historically what took place in 167 BCE but has application for us today in our traumas, fears, struggles and crises each of us face today. We remember the concepts of Tikkun, Tikkun atzmi, repair of ones self and Tikkun olam, repair of our community and of our world.
Hanukkah is a festive celebration where there is no fasting because of the miracles of the oil and the victory over the mighty Syrian army by such a small group of Jews.
The traditional Hanukkah foods are all symbolic of the events being celebrated. For example, Hanukkah foods are all fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of the oil that lasted for 8 consecutive days such as latkes or potato pancakes, Loukoumades or deep fried puffs, to represent the cakes the Maccabee family hurriedly ate while at war to include sufganiyot or jelly doughnuts. Cheese products are also used to commemorate the cheese and wine the legendary Judith the Widow used to capture and kill an Assyrian General.
Gift giving is a part of the Hanukkah celebration. Generally small gifts of “gelt” which is Yiddish for money are given to commemorate the coins used when the Holy temple was re-consecrated and in remembrance of the coins minted in the newly restored Maccabee state. Most often instead of gelt chocolate wrapped in gold colored foil shaped as coins are given as presents to represent real gelt, children love these gifts.
Gift giving aside from gelt is also a part of Hanukkah due to the influences of Christianity and Christmas which influences conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism who are lenient toward non-Jews. Ultra Orthodox and Orthodox do not water down the applications and laws of Judaism.
There is also a common greeting for Hanukkah which is “Hag urim same’ach” which means Happy Festival of Lights. A fun traditional game played during Hanukkah is Dreidel a 4-sided spinning top.
There is also a common greeting for Hanukkah which is “Hag urim same’ach” which means Happy Festival of Lights.
A fun traditional game played during Hanukkah is Dreidel a 4-sided spinning top. Each side of the dreidel has one letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Nun, Gimel, Hey, Shin, an acronym for which reads Nes Gadol Hayah Sham or "a great miracle happened there."
Festival of Lights
Hanukkah is also called the “festival of lights” because of the lighting of the menorah. However there is also an older history to the festival of lights. Torches and lamps were customarily lit inside temple courts and lights would be reflected on the water. The lights of Hanukkah are another similarity between Christmas and Hanukkah.
Flavious Josephus a Jewish historian wrote his account of the festival of Hanukkah and Josephus referred to the festival as the Festival of Lights not as Hanukkah. He associated the festival with the images of light and the term has continued down to us today.
The Themes of Hanukkah
Hanukkah saw a resurgence of the theme “portrayal of the Jewish fighter in a positive manner.” As indicated previously the victory over the Syrian army by the Jews was the occurrence that spawned this festival. No victory-no festival. The miracle of the oil was the other theme.
In more recent years especially after 1948 after the independence of Israel as a nation the positive portrayal of the Jewish fighter as a theme has been especially important. In 1967 “the six day war” was another reason this theme resurged. Today the constant threat from Israel’s neighbors keeping the nation on constant alert makes the themes of Hanukkah especially important just as the similar theme of “Purim” does. The constant posture of defending against attacks as a nation causes Israel today to connect with the themes of Hanukkah.
In a post-Holocaust era Jews were made sharply aware of the issues raised by Hanukkah such as oppression, identity as Jews, and the struggle to protect their freedom.
A Christian Perspective of Hanukkah
The move to destroy Jewish temples throughout Jewish history from a Christian perspective is a prerequisite move to destroy Israel as a nation and one of many attempts to annihilate the Jewish people.
This attempt is very profound to Christianity as a “belief system” because of the essential contributions Israel as a nation was created to effect. If Israel was annihilated then the Messiach, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ would not have come and thus Christianity as a religion or belief system would not exist. Judaism and the 13 principles of Maimonedes do not recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiach of the Tanak.
The Laws of our land and the laws of many civilized nations have foundations of the Hebrew Bible and customs interwoven in their institutions and for Christianity there would not be the source document called the Bible and moral laws to live by. The entire Christian Old and New Testaments come from the Jewish Written Law called the Tenak. Without Judaism and Israel there would be no Christianity. Replacement theology is not a point of view that comes from a well thought out idea. The Church and Judaism work parallel to each other not one replacing the other.
Hanukkah then reminds Christians and all civilized nations that to annihilate Israel would be an eternal loss to the entire planet and to civilization on a whole.
As Christians celebrate Christmas, we can remember the constant struggles of Israel during this season of Hanukkah and earnestly “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
The Story of Hanukkah as rendered from 1 MACCABEES, CHAPTER 2
Mattathias and His Sons. In those days Mattathias, son of John, son of Simeon, a priest of the family of Joarib, left Jerusalem and settled in Modein. He had five sons: John, who was called Gaddi; Simon, who was called Thassi; Judas, who was called Maccabeus; Eleazar, who was called Avaran; and Jonathan, who was called Apphus. When he saw the sacrileges that were being committed in Judah and in Jerusalem, he said: “Woe is me! Why was I born to see the ruin of my people, the ruin of the holy city— To dwell there as it was given into the hands of enemies, the sanctuary into the hands of strangers? Her temple has become like a man disgraced, her glorious vessels carried off as spoils, Her infants murdered in her streets, her youths by the sword of the enemy. What nation has not taken its share of her realm, and laid its hand on her spoils? All her adornment has been taken away. Once free, she has become a slave. We see our sanctuary laid waste, our beauty, our glory. The Gentiles have defiled them! Why are we still alive?” Then Mattathias and his sons tore their garments, put on sackcloth, and mourned bitterly. Pagan Worship Refused and Resisted. The officers of the king in charge of enforcing the apostasy came to the city of Modein to make them sacrifice. Many of Israel joined them, but Mattathias and his sons drew together. Then the officers of the king addressed Mattathias: “You are a leader, an honorable and great man in this city, supported by sons and kindred. Come now, be the first to obey the king’s command, as all the Gentiles and Judeans and those who are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons shall be numbered among the King’s Friends, and you and your sons shall be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.”
But Mattathias answered in a loud voice: “Although all the Gentiles in the king’s realm obey him, so that they forsake the religion of their ancestors and consent to the king’s orders, yet I and my sons and my kindred will keep to the covenant of our ancestors. Heaven forbid that we should forsake the law and the commandments. We will not obey the words of the king by departing from our religion in the slightest degree.” As he finished saying these words, a certain Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modein according to the king’s order. When Mattathias saw him, he was filled with zeal; his heart was moved and his just fury was aroused; he sprang forward and killed him upon the altar. At the same time, he also killed the messenger of the king who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he showed his zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did with Zimri, son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the city, “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and who stands by the covenant follow me!” Then he and his sons fled to the mountains, leaving behind in the city all their possessions. At that time many who sought righteousness and justice went out into the wilderness to settle there, they and their children, their wives and their animals, because misfortunes pressed so hard on them. It was reported to the officers and soldiers of the king who were in the City of David, in Jerusalem, that those who had flouted the king’s order had gone out to secret refuges in the wilderness.
Many hurried out after them, and having caught up with them, camped opposite and prepared to attack them on the sabbath. The pursuers said to them, “Enough of this! Come out and obey the king’s command, and you will live.” But they replied, “We will not come out, nor will we obey the king’s command to profane the sabbath.” Then the enemy attacked them at once. But they did not retaliate; they neither threw stones, nor blocked up their secret refuges. They said, “Let us all die in innocence; heaven and earth are our witnesses that you destroy us unjustly.” So the officers and soldiers attacked them on the sabbath, and they died with their wives, their children and their animals, to the number of a thousand persons. When Mattathias and his friends heard of it, they mourned deeply for them. They said to one another, “If we all do as our kindred have done, and do not fight against the Gentiles for our lives and our laws, they will soon destroy us from the earth.” So on that day they came to this decision: “Let us fight against anyone who attacks us on the sabbath, so that we may not all die as our kindred died in their secret refuges.” Then they were joined by a group of Hasideans, mighty warriors of Israel, all of them devoted to the law. And all those who were fleeing from the persecutions joined them and supported them.
They gathered an army and struck down sinners in their wrath and the lawless in their anger, and the survivors fled to the Gentiles for safety. Mattathias and his friends went about and tore down the pagan altars; they also forcibly circumcised any uncircumcised boys whom they found in the territory of Israel. They put to flight the arrogant, and the work prospered in their hands. They saved the law from the hands of the Gentiles and of the kings and did not let the sinner triumph. Farewell of Mattathias. When the time came for Mattathias to die, he said to his sons: “Arrogance and scorn have now grown strong; it is a time of disaster and violent wrath. Therefore, my children, be zealous for the law and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors. “Remember the deeds that our ancestors did in their times, and you shall win great honor and an everlasting name. Was not Abraham found faithful in trial, and it was credited to him as righteousness? Joseph, when in distress, kept the commandment, and he became master of Egypt. Phinehas our ancestor, for his burning zeal, received the covenant of an everlasting priesthood. Joshua, for executing his commission, became a judge in Israel.
Caleb, for bearing witness before the assembly, received an inheritance in the land. David, for his loyalty, received as a heritage a throne of eternal kingship. Elijah, for his burning zeal for the law, was taken up to heaven. Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael, for their faith, were saved from the fire. Daniel, for his innocence, was delivered from the mouths of lions. And so, consider this from generation to generation, that none who hope in Heaven shall fail in strength. Do not fear the words of sinners, for their glory ends in corruption and worms. Today exalted, tomorrow not to be found, they have returned to dust, their schemes have perished. Children! be courageous and strong in keeping the law, for by it you shall be honored.
“Here is your brother Simeon who I know is a wise counselor; listen to him always, and he will be a father to you. And Judas Maccabeus, a mighty warrior from his youth, shall be the leader of your army and wage the war against the nations. Gather about you all who observe the law, and avenge your people. Pay back the Gentiles what they deserve, and observe the precepts of the law.” Then he blessed them, and he was gathered to his ancestors. He died in the year one hundred and forty-six, and was buried in the tombs of his ancestors in Modein, and all Israel mourned him greatly. * [2:1] Modein: a village about twenty miles northwest of Jerusalem, the family’s ancestral home (see 2:70; 9:19). * [2:18] The King’s Friends: a regular order of nobility at Hellenistic courts (see 10:65; 11:27). * [2:29] The wilderness: the sparsely inhabited mountain country southward from Jerusalem and west of the Dead Sea, in the region where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. * [2:42] Hasideans: in Hebrew hasidim, “pious ones,” a militant religious group devoted to the strict observance of the law. They first supported the Maccabean movement, but subsequently opposed it, regarding it as too political In the year one hundred and forty-six: 166 B.C. a. [2:1] 1 Chr 9:10; 24:7. b. [2:9] Lam 2:11, 21. c. [2:26] Nm 25:6–15; Ps 106:28–31; Sir 45:23–24; 1 Mc 2:54. d. [2:28] 2 Mc 5:27. e. [2:32–38] 2 Mc 6:11. f. [2:52] Gn 15:6; 22:1–18. g. [2:53] Gn 39:7–10; 41:39–43. 65 66 67 68 69 70 * h. [2:54] Nm 25:6–15. i. [2:55] Jos 1, 2, 5. j. [2:56] Nm 13:30; 14:6–9, 24; Jos 14:14. k. [2:57] 2 Sm 2:4; 7:16. l. [2:58] 1 Kgs 19:10, 14; 2 Kgs 2:11. m. [2:59] Dn 3:26. n. [2:60] Dn 6:23. o. [2:62] 2 Mc 9:5–10, 28.
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