The recently published article, “Happy Menorah Feast: Thoughts and Explanations,” purported to challenge the origins and significance of the Hanukkah holiday for a variety of reasons. I disagree, and I will explain why.
The authors of the article stated that God never commanded the celebration of the holiday, as if that fact undercuts its significance and meaning. Yet, I Maccabees, which describes the events of the retaking of the temple in Jerusalem, discusses the celebration of an eight day holiday, similar to today’s celebration. In addition, Josephus, who wrote at the end of the first century, stated that the eight day celebration was kept annually from the time of the Maccabees until the present. Thus, in both instances, the holiday is recognized as honoring God for His miraculous intervention. It’s common in both Judaism and Christianity to create holidays to honor God when something significant happens. For example, take the holiday of Purim. Purim is celebrated because the Book of Esther describes miraculous events, which Mordecai felt should be celebrated annually. Interestingly, God didn’t command the keeping of Purim, only Mordecai did. In fact, God isn’t mentioned at all in the Book of Esther. In the Book of Maccabees, Judah mandates the celebration. Just because the Book of Esther made it into the Biblical canon (just barely by the way), doesn’t mean the events of the Maccabees are any less significant, including holidays associated with them.
While the authors of the article painstakingly try to pin the festivities of Hanukkah on the rabbis, the reality is the rabbis downplayed its celebration, likely recognizing that celebrating a revolt against governing authorities wouldn’t play well when Jews were spread and subject to the nations. Until modern times it was considered a minor Jewish holiday. Now, it’s the most celebrated Jewish holiday in the world, interestingly at a time when the rabbis have the least amount of influence upon the Jewish world since the rise of the rabbis in the late 1st century.
The authors concede the gospel of John mentions Yeshua came to the Temple at Hanukkah but not necessarily to celebrate it. However, John emphasizes more than any of the gospels how Yeshua relates to the Jewish holidays. In fact, most of the book of John finds Yeshua celebrating or participating in one or another Jewish holiday. Why is the fact of his participating in Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) in John 7 more significant than his participation in Hanukkah in chapter 10? In each case, he uses the holiday for a teaching moment. He certainly doesn’t criticize the keeping of the holiday.
The authors also place great significance upon the seven branched temple menorah as opposed to the nine branched hanukkiah. Their argument is that Yeshua’s name in Hebrew is mysteriously seen in the regular menorah, while the creation and adoption of the hanukkiah was a veiled attempt by the rabbis to displace Yeshua. While I found their explanation of Yeshua’s name in the menorah interesting, I find it hard to imagine that most people would be persuaded that his name is miraculously hidden there. Rather, I find more compelling the explanation of the shamash (servant) candle of the hanukkiah as a type of Yeshua, whose light illuminates our lights.
The authors also argue that modern Jews glorify the Maccabees over God, implying that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the holiday. But this is likely more connected to the increasing secularization of modern society. The same is true for Christmas celebrations and music in the US, where Santa Claus seemingly trumps Jesus.
Finally, let me address the miraculous finding of oil. While it is true that the first place this is mentioned is in the Talmud, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate it. While I was the leader of my former congregation in Virginia, we experienced a similar Hanukkah miracle. In 1990 we moved into an earlier Orthodox synagogue. It was huge. It was heated by an oil furnace, and in the basement were four oil tanks that held a total of 1100 gallons of oil (4160 liters). Our first service in the synagogue was Hanukkah, 1990. We ordered in 150 gallons of oil to check the furnace. It worked. Later that week one of our leaders called to tell me he just checked the oil tanks and found them completely full. I asked if he had checked them earlier. He said he thought so, and they were dry. During the service I told an excited congregation about the possible miracle of oil. After the service a man, who was a chemist and an unbeliever, approached me. He looked as white as a ghost. I asked him what was wrong. He said he checked those oil tanks himself, and they were bone dry. He said it was a miracle, and he became a believer.
While I, of course, know that this story doesn’t prove the original Hanukkah oil story, the fact is that we serve the God of yesterday, today and forever. What He did in the past, He still does today. Our Hanukkah story is a testimony to that fact. When we join with our Jewish brethren around the world and celebrate the holidays and traditions, we show that we remain part of the historical experience of the Jewish people. By being followers of Yeshua within the midst of our people, we “spread everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him.” II Cor. 2:14