Hannukah – Feast of Dedication
Written by Jan Snyder – Edited by Rabbi Adam Spears
Many times throughout history nations have sought to destroy the Jewish people but the Jews were saved from their evil designs. The Rabbis established two of these occasions as annual holidays commemorating their miraculous salvation, providing an opportunity to remember the Lord’s kindness and to thank Him. One of these holidays is Purim, and the other is Hannukah. Hannukah is not part of the “Seven Feasts of the Lord” ordained by G-d Himself, but Adonai did allow His people to hold two feasts of their own choosing. Hannukah, the last of the feasts to be established, is seen as the deliverance from spiritual annihilation and is observed in a more spiritual manner.
In Hebrew “Hannukah” means dedication, thus it is known as the Feast of Dedication and in John 10:22 Yeshua is recorded as honoring this Feast. It is also called the Feast of Lights. In fact the Jewish historian, Josephus retells the Hannukah story and is credited with being the first to give it this name.
It is said that the Hannukah story is a combination of fact and legend, with a little miracle added. Hannukah commemorates a battle for religious freedom by celebrating the rededication of the Beit Hamikdash (The Temple) and the lighting of the menorah. Despite its spiritual aspects, it is still only considered a minor holiday. Though it is observed mostly in the home, Hannukah services in the synagogue include the Hallel (psalms of praise) and the special Al Hanisim prayer - “for the miracles.” Special Torah portions are read, the dedication story is retold, and there are special readings that reflect the Hannukah theme (Zechariah) 4:6 – “Not by might, not by power, but by My Rauch (Spirit) says Adonai-Tzva’ot (Lord of Hosts).”
Hannukah is a fun, festive holiday, especially for the children. In addition to lighting the Hanukkiah (nine-branched menorah), there are family songs that are sung, and children receive Hannukah gelt (money). A newer tradition is the giving of small gifts on each night. Some feel this is in reaction to the Christian holiday of Christmas, which occurs about the same time of the year.
There is merriment through games (the dreidel game), as well as festive meals. Popular foods include latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiayah (a fried jelly donut).
Seeing these celebrations taking place, many Christians mistakenly associate these with their Christmas celebration. Sometimes Hannukah is seen as a type of “Jewish Christmas” which is not true at all! In fact, Hannukah is one of the major events that set the stage for the advent of Messiah’s birth. To understand Hannukah, a brief history lesson will help set the stage.
After the Babylon Exile, the Jews returned to Judea* and rebuilt their temple although their land had come under the control of the Persian Empire. In 338 BCE (Before Common Era) Philip of Macedonia successfully invaded Greece. At his death two years later, Philip’s son, Alexander (the Great) continued to conquer territory that would eventually extend across the Persian Empire, including Israel and Egypt.
Alexander attempted to create a universal culture that blended Greek religion and Eastern philosophy known as Hellenism. We know it today as humanism and/or New Age. Hellenism’s effect upon the Judean hills was to splinter the Jewish people, literally pitting Jew against Jew.
To many Jews, the Greek culture represented the future and success. They assimilated much of the culture, even abandoning some aspects of Judaism such as claiming that only the written Torah, not the oral law, needed to be followed. Many of them, mostly the upper classes, even spoke Greek and later translated the Torah and writings into Greek.
However, other Jews held firm to the Torah and rejected Greek values. This group became known as the P'rushim (Pharisees) and was made up of ardent rabbis and priests. The Hellenist Jews became the Tz’dukim (Sadducees) who used their power and wealth to gain influence with the Greeks. Eventually the Tz’dukim secured control of the position of Kohen Hagadol (The High Priest) and the Sanhedrin (the highest Jewish court).
Upon the death of Alexander the Great, his kingdom was divided among his four generals, resulting in the division of the Empire. The Ptolemies took control of the South, which included Egypt. The Seleucids took the northern area around Syria. The Ptolemy Dynasty, though proponents of Hellenism, let the Jews practice their religion, feeling that the allure of Hellenism would draw them.
However by 199 BCE the Ptolemy Dynasty had weakened and came under the control of the Seleucid Dynasty. They were not as tolerant of the Jewish religious practices and made prohibitions on Shabbat observance, Kosher laws, the study of Torah, and B’rit Milah (circumcision). Violations of these laws were punishable by death. This was an attempt to strike at the heart of Judaism itself. The Greeks did not anticipate that their suppression of Torah study would actually result in a greater devotion of time and energy to Torah study. Under the guise of playing the dreidel game, Torah study continued. The Greeks (and later the Romans) were fond of games, especially gambling games, and let the Jews play their game.
In 167 BC harsher measurers were undertaken to force the Jews to adopt Greek practices. The Greek king, Antiochus IV banned all practice of Judaism and placed a Hellenist (a Tz’dukim – Sadducee) in control of the Temple. Greek symbols had already been placed in the Temple but Antiochus required the sacrifice of a pig (their sacred animal) on the altar.
Mattityahu, an elder and leader of the distinguished Hasmonean family, was ordered to offer a sacrifice to a pagan god. Not only did he refuse, he turned his fury on the Greek soldiers. As another Jew, a Hellenist, attempted to carry out the sacrifice, Mattityahu killed him and the government official who gave the order... Thus began the Maccabean Rebellion.
Mattityahu and his five sons became known as the Maccabees which in Hebrew means “men who are as strong as hammers.”
The nickname must have been indicative as the small Jewish forces under the command of Y’hudah (Judah) Maccabee ultimately defeated the mighty Greek armies. On the 25th day of Kislev, 164 BCE the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple.
Since the Temple had been desecrated, it had to be rededicated, thus the origin for the name of this Feast. Part of the rededication was the lighting of the Temple Menorah, which was to be lit everyday, but only one flask of Temple oil with the High Priest’s seal was found; enough to burn one day. A rider was dispatched immediately to Mount Ephraim where olive trees grew that provided oil for the Menorah. It would take at least a week for more oil to be secured. However, that small quantity lasted the one-day plus the seven days until the rider could return with oil – thus the eight days of Hannukah.
Some believe that the eight days of oil were a miracle wrought by God’s hand while others feel it is just a lovely legend. In fact, the episode of the oil is not even mentioned in the Book of Maccabees but the miracle is recounted in the Talmud (the combination of Mishna (Oral Torah) and Gemara (commentary) completed about 200 CE.
Although the Jews did achieve a measure of independence with the Hasmonean family ruling for the next century, the Maccabee rebellion was fought over religious freedom, not over land or political sovereignty. The Maccabees belonged to the Hasmonean family of priests and therefore could not own land. Later, the Hasmoneans were swayed by the Hellenist culture they had fought against. Another group of Jews splintered off in outrage over the corruption of the priesthood – the Essences – and retreated to the wilderness. Rome then conquered Judea and through alliances with the Hasmonean family, Herod the Great came to power as the much-hated King of the Jews. Fiercely loyal to the idea of freedom and to their faith, the Zealots fought both Rome and Herod in anticipation of the Messiah to come restore the kingdom of David. So now all the players were ready and the stage was set for G-d’s plan to unfold – the birth of Messiah.
Today, the observance of Hannukah features the lighting of Hanukkiah.
On the first night of Chanukah, one light is lit and on each successive night, another light is added until the eighth night all the candles are lit. When one lights on the first night, one places the candle on the extreme right and lighting it with the Shamash (center light). The following night one candle is added immediately to the left of the previous night. The same procedure is followed each night always adding from right to left but always lighting from left to right. The reason for this procedure is that the additional light recalls the greatness and growth of the miracle.
Part of the purpose of lighting the Hanukkiah is to publicize the miracle that took place, and share it with the world. It is customary for menorahs to be placed in front of a visible window. In Israel, some homes are constructed with cut outs in the wall next to the front door for the menorah to be displayed. During the time the candles are burning, it is also customary that women relax and not work.