Hanukkah is around the corner. It is a holiday with a very unusual history, symbols and traditions. It’s also a holiday that provides very important historical and spiritual lessons to every Jew. This year, from the evening of December 24th, 2016 to January 1st, 2017 – Jewish people will celebrate Hanukkah.
Let’s look back on how it started…
There is no such holiday among the appointed festivals which the Lord has set for the people of Israel. However, since 164 BC, Jews around the world celebrate this time which altogether lasts eight days (according to the Jewish calendar – from Kislev 25th to the 2nd of the month of Tevet). The name “Hanukkah” derives from the Hebrew word "lahinot", which can be translated from Hebrew as "to dedicate" or "to renew". Hanukkah is also sometimes called the Festival of Lights or the Feast of Dedication.
So what happened during that time? What miracles did the Lord our God, King of the Universe perform “to our fathers so long ago at this time of year”?
Since 198 BC, the land of Israel was under the reign of Hellenistic kingdom of Syria ruled by the Seleucid Dynasty. Back then, the culture of the Hellenistic world was no longer the same Greek culture of the classical period. A "global universal culture" was formed on the foundation of Greek culture. It penetrated into all countries that were conquered by Alexander the Great and the customs and traditions of many gentile nations were mixed into it. This Greek view of life and its cosmopolitism spread widely. Although Macedonia and Rome, Syria and Egypt sometimes fought against each other, they all were united by Hellenism. For all the nations of the world, this was the primary acceptable culture. But this wasn’t the case for all Jews. Although, at that time there still were small groups of Jews, or "mityavnim", who conformed themselves unto Hellenists. They wanted Jews to become like all the other nations.
Temptations of Hellenistic culture were slowly taking Jews away from the religion of their fathers. Gymnasiums, sports games, pagan festivals and performances in honor of the Greek gods attracted Jews who were weaken in their faith. Jews who were devoted to the Torah selflessly defended the faith of their fathers, but there were also those who increasingly had tendencies towards paganism. The apocryphal book of Maccabees describes that time, "Then the king [Antiochus] wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and abandon their particular customs. All the Gentiles conformed to the command of the king, and many Israelites delighted in his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath" (1 Macсabees 1:41-43).
In 167 BC, the ruler of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, issued a decree that every Jew who kept and studied the Torah should be executed. Under threat of death, it was forbidden to study Hebrew, to sanctify the Sabbath and to celebrate Jewish holidays. The ban was imposed on all Jewish traditions, including the circumcision of boys. The God of the Jews was to be considered as a local incarnation of Zeus, the supreme god of the Greeks. The temple in Jerusalem was desecrated; a pig was sacrificed at the altar of burnt offering and a statue of Zeus was installed in the Holy of Holies.
Up to that time Jews tolerated everything. They tried to make themselves as comfortable as it was possible in those conditions, but they didn’t consider themselves slaves of the Hellenistic system. And when the pressure increased, that sense of slavery became unbearable. In the year 167 BC, in the city of Modiin (or Modi'in) not far from Jerusalem, the priest of Hasmonean Dynasty, Matityahu, rebelled against existing order. Five of his sons stood next to him.
This uprising was viewed as suicidal as Matityahu himself was a priest and none of them knew how to fight. However, a small group of Jews stood up against a professional army. God allowed such a path for His people who had to make a choice. And this choice was the source of miracles in their lives.
The first victim of the uprising was a Jewish apostate who came to the pagan altar that was set in the town square to bring a sacrifice to Zeus. With a cry of "Mileha Shem Eli" ("Whoever is for the Lord, come to me", Exodus 32:26), Matityahu along with his sons attacked Syrian soldiers.
A small group of Jewish rebels fled to the Judean Hills. Despite the risk in their rebellion, their numbers were gradually increasing. At first it was partisan war, but later it turned into a liberation movement. When Matityahu died at his old age, the uprising was then led by his third son, Judah Maccabee. "Maccabee", (or “hammer” in Hebrew), was Judah’s nickname. Maccabee is also the abbreviation for the rebel battle cry, "Mika mocha Baelim, Hashem?"("Who among the gods is like you, Lord?” Exodus 15:11).
After three years of severe fighting, the rebels struck the troops of Antiochus, liberated Jerusalem and overtook the Temple. It happened on the 25th of the month of Kislev in 164 BC. This date is not a mere coincidence. According to legend, on the day of 25th of Kislev, the consecration of the portable Temple (the Mishkan) took place in the wilderness. On that same day and month, the restored second Temple was consecrated. And the desecration of the Temple by the Syrians took place also on the 25th of Kislev, 167 BC.
In these battles when the Temple was restored, Syrian forces greatly outnumbered Jewish forces both in quantity and in quality. The enemy troops were professionally trained and Yehuda units consisted of poorly armed herdsmen, farmers and craftsmen. In the decisive battle for Jerusalem 6,000 Jews opposed 40,000 Syrian infantry, 7,000 cavalry, 38 elephants and a variety of auxiliary units. But Jews fasted and prayed, "O God! We are powerless, unless You return us the Temple, sacrifices and the priesthood! We are dying without a true ministry to You!"
The essence of war with Antiochus reduced the fight to the right to remain Jewish and keep the faith, to the decision to purify the Temple and re-dedicate it to God. Why did Jews fight for the return of the Temple so fiercely? Because, according to the biblical ordinances, the Temple was the center of Jewish faith. It was the place they could offer sacrifices to God for the forgiveness of sins.
With Jerusalem liberated, the forces of Judah Maccabee entered the Temple. There they found "abomination of desolation". The temple and the altar were desecrated. Jews demounted the desecrated altar and laid down a new one after which they purified and consecrated the temple. Talmudic tradition tells that oil for the menorah, stored in a special room of the Temple, was also violated. Vessels containing the oil had been opened; seals on them were broken and as such, the oil was considered unclean and improper for use in the menorah – the temple’s seven-branched candlestick.
Why was having oil for the menorah present so important? This was an obligatory condition for resuming the service at the Temple, as the menorah in the Holy of Holies had to burn constantly (Exodus 27:20-21). Only the menorah had to be lit. But in proximity to the Temple there wasn’t a single vessel with ritually pure oil. After a long search, a single undefiled oil vessel was found that was sealed with the seal of the high priest. Within it, there was only enough oil for the menorah to burn one day which was problematic as eight days are required to prepare new consecrated oil. But, their thirst for God, the thirst for God's mercy and for God's joy overcame all doubts. Especially since they were longing for such a ministry as God Himself have commanded. The Jews lit the menorah with only a one-day supply of oil. Yet ... the menorah burned for 8 days until new consecrated oil was prepared. Service in the Temple went in the usual way - oil in the menorah was poured constantly, services and sacrifices were performed as prescribed by the Torah.
In remembrance of the purification of the Temple and the consecration of the altar, the Feast of Dedication was established (see John 10:22) as a permanent 8-day feast that received name of Hanukkah in Jewish tradition. The apocryphal 1 Maccabees 4:52-58 on the establishment of this feast says the following:
“52. And they arose before the morning on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month (which is the month of Casleu) in the hundred and forty-eighth year.
53. And they offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of holocausts which they had made.
54. According to the time, and according to the day wherein the heathens had defiled it, in the same was it dedicated anew with canticles, and harps, and lutes, and cymbals.
55. And all the people fell upon their faces, and adored, and blessed up to heaven, him that had prospered them.
56. And they kept the dedication of the altar eight days, and they offered holocausts with joy, and sacrifices of salvation, and of praise.
57. And they adorned the front of the temple with crowns of gold, and escutcheons, and they renewed the gates, and the chambers, and hanged doors upon them.
58. And there was exceeding great joy among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was turned away”.
Mentioned in the 52nd verse 148th year corresponds to the 164th BC and is counted from the 312th BC, assumed in the Hellenistic world as the beginning of chronology.
Traditions in the 8 day celebration of Hanukkah are written about in the 2nd Book of Maccabees. This book connects the restoration of the Temple and the sacrifice by Maccabees to the restoration of affiliation of the Jewish people with their Creator and presence of the God among His people. It also draws a parallel between the celebration of the holiday of Sukkot and the construction of the Temple of Solomon and its consecration, "And they kept eight days with joy, after the manner of the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long before they had kept the feast of the tabernacles when they were in the mountains, and in dens like wild beasts" (2 Maccabees 10:6). "So Solomon also celebrated the dedication eight days" (2 Maccabees 2:12).
During Hanukkah, instead of the usual menorah, families will light a special holiday menorah called a Chanukiah that has 8 candles. Every day, they light one more candle to symbolize the strengthening of the miracle that took place. They recite the blessing, "Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who performed miracles to our fathers in those days at this time and Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights".
Days of celebration; 0 – unlit candle
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Eight holiday menorah candles are lit from an “extra” light; a ninth candle called a “shamash”, which means "servant". It is shamash that points out to Yeshua, our true light Who came to illuminate our lives. Just like the servant candle, Yeshua came to us to serve (Mark 10:45). He gave us light (John 1:4-5), so that we ourselves can be the light to others.
The custom remains today to place this holiday Chanukiah in the window of the home so that those passing by can see it. This is done to fulfill the instruction to give this special miracle a high profile (Matthew 5:14-16). Back in the old days, the menorah stood only in the Holy Temple and its light could only be seen by priests. Today, every house has a festive light. And, man, who is kindled by the fire of Yeshua becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit.
In the Temple, the regular menorah was always burning the same number of wicks (7). But with the Chanukiah, we add one candle so there is one for each of the 8 days. Orthodox Judaism didn’t spread outside of the nation of Israel. And The Kingdom of God grows and spreads around the world.
On Hanukkah kids play their favorite game – spin the dreidel! A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top and each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter: Nun, Gimel, Hey, Shin –forming the acronym: Nes Gadol Haya Sham, "A great miracle happened there". This is how Jewish children secretly studied their language and the Torah.
During this holiday, Jews traditionally cook latkes; potato pancakes fried in olive oil. Since the miracle of Hanukkah refers to oil, all food is cooked in vegetable oil. In Israel especially, another favorite dish of Hanukkah is sufganiyot; jam-filled doughnuts.