A short history of Chanukah

When Alexander the Great died he divided his empire between his most trusted generals. Each general took one of the conquered territories and appointed themselves King. One of the descendants of these rulers was Antiochus Epiphanes the King of Syria.

Hellenistic culture was in the ascendancy and many Jews saw their future in assimilation into mainstream Greek culture. They had surgery to hide their circumcision and ceased to observe Sabbath and Festivals.

Antiochus then went even further by making observance of any Jewish ritual punishable by death and Torah scrolls were publicly burned.

Antiochus desecrated the Temple, ripping out the Altar and destroying the furniture used in worship, In the place of the Altar he erected a huge pagan idol. The desecration took place on the 25th of Kislev 3394, corresponding to 167 BCE.

One day one of Antiochus’ officers came to a village called Modi’in where a Priest named Mattathias lived. The officer invited Mattathias to lead the Jews in the village to take part in pagan worship. One Jewish man did step forward, but Mattathias drew his sword and killed both the wayward Jew and the Syrian officer.

Mattathias then escaped to a remote place, organized a guerilla army and attacked the Syrians. Eventually Mattathias died and one of his five sons Judah took over. Judah adopted the name “Maccabi” – an acronym derived from Exodus 15:11.

 MCamocha Be ‘elim Adonai
מִי-כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם יְהוָה
Who is like unto thee O Lord among the gods

Eventually Judah and his army re-entered Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple, refurnishing it so that sacrifices to the LORD could once again be made. This was completed on the 25th Kislev 3397 corresponding to 164 BCE, the anniversary of its desecration. Eight days of celebration were decreed. Although the story is not found in the text of the book of Maccabees tradition has it that when the Temple was rededicated only sufficient oil was found to light the Ner Tamid – the Eternal Flame in the Temple-  for one day By a miracle the jar of oil lasted the whole eight days of the celebration and the light never went out.

Afterwards Judah the Maccabee and his army went on to attack Antiochus and his allies throughout the land of Israel until Antiochus V of the same dynasty conceded defeat and allowed all Jews in his empire to worship God in the  way they wished.

Hanukkah Traditions

Hanukkah foods are anything made with oil to commemorate the miracle so Latkes -potato pancakes and sufganiot – donuts are on the menu.

We light the Hanukkiah which is an eight branched candlestick with a ninth place for the Shammas – the servant light – used to light the other candles. We light one candle the first night, two the second and so on until the eighth night when all eight candles are ablaze. The Shammas is extinguished each evening after using it to light the other candles so that the same candle lasts eight days thus commemorating the miracle. The nine branched Hannukiah is not to be confused with seven branched Menorah.

Songs sung at Hanukkah are Hanerot Halanu  – These lights.

These Chanukah lights we light
In honour of the miracles and the wonders
And salvation wrought and the wars,
You fought, for our fathers,
In those days, in that time.
By the hands of Your holy priests.
And throughout Chanukah’s eight days
These lights shall be sacred:
No right to make use of them,
Only to look at them and see.
In order that we may thank and praise
Your great name and salvation
And for Your wondrous deeds


Maoz Tsur  –  Rock of ages

Rock of ages
Crown this praise
Light and songs to you we raise
Our will you strengthen
To fight for our redemption
Our will you strengthen
To fight for our redemption
We celebrate with hymn and praise
Festive candles to you we raise
We celebrate with hymn and praise
Festive candles we celebrate

Children of all ages play ‘dreidel’ which is a spinning top, gambling usually for hazelnuts or the like

The four-sided top has one of four letters on each face.

The letters are nun  נ gimmel ג hé ה and shin ש standing for Nes Gadol Haya Sham meaning a  great miracle happened there. In Israel the  ש  “there” is replaced by a פ a for “po” since in Israel the miracle happened here.

Chanukah or Christmas

What should we celebrate? The importance of Hanukkah to us is greatly underestimated. Without a Temple Zechariah the father of John the Baptist could never have been ministering there.

Anna the prophetess would never have prayed there, and Miriam and Joseph would never have brought their offering of two young pigeons or doves and had Yeshua circumcised there. Where would Simeon have gone to see the child.

In short, had it not been for the events of Chanukah, the Christmas story could never have happened…