Hanukka Myths and Facts

Hanukka is one of the minor holidays not mentioned in the Torah. It is celebrated due to a historic event. A miracle that God did for us. But, as we shall see, it is also much more than that. In fact, even Hanukka – just like all other holidays – points us directly to the Messiah.

The holiday is a memory of events that happened “between the old and new testament” – the rededication of the Temple in 161 BC. Here’s the background story (partly taken from Wikipedia):

The Old Testament ends with an autonomous Jewish entity within the Persian empire, with Ezra and Nehemia as leaders. In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great conquered the area, and after his death, Israel became a part of the Egyptian Ptolemaic Kingdom. Around the year 200 BC, the Seleucid Empire, based in Syria, conquered Israel. There was a continuing process of Hellenization amongst many Jews, especially from the upper class, who were seeking a Greek lifestyle rather than adhering to the Jewish law.

In 167 BC, king Antiochus IV banned Jewish sacrifices, Sabbaths and feasts, and circumcision. He put up statues of Greek Gods in the temple and sacrificed forbidden animals, such as pigs, on altars that were originally dedicated to God. Possession of Jewish scriptures was made a capital offense.

According to the narrative in Maccabees 1, the revolt was sparked by Mattathias from Modiin who, after refusing to bow down to the Greek god, killed a Hellenistic Jew who stepped forward to offer a sacrifice to an idol in Mattathias’ place. Mattathias fled to the desert with his sons. He died the following year, and his son, Judah Maccabee, led the Jewish army to free the land. He led several successful guerrilla warfare missions, where he won battle after battle.

After the victory, the Maccabees entered Jerusalem in triumph and ritually cleansed the Temple, reestablishing traditional Jewish worship there, and that’s the event which we now celebrate. It happened in 165 BC.

Many other events happened after this as well, but to make a long story short – Judea eventually became independent under Judas’ brother, Simon, in 140 BC, and was an independent kingdom until 63 BC when the Roman emperor Pompey conquered Jerusalem.

The story of Hanukka is in the books of Maccabees. It appears in both:

Then said Judas and his brethren, Behold, our enemies are discomfited: let us go up to cleanse and dedicate the sanctuary. Upon this all the host assembled themselves together, and went up into mount Sion. And when they saw the sanctuary desolate, and the altar profaned, and the gates burned up, and shrubs growing in the courts as in a forest, or in one of the mountains, yea, and the priests’ chambers pulled down; They rent their clothes, and made great lamentation, and cast ashes upon their heads, and fell down flat to the ground upon their faces, and blew an alarm with the trumpets, and cried toward heaven.

Then Judas appointed certain men to fight against those that were in the fortress, until he had cleansed the sanctuary. So he chose priests of blameless conversation, such as had pleasure in the law who cleansed the sanctuary, and bare out the defiled stones into an unclean place. And when as they consulted what to do with the altar of burnt offerings, which was profaned; they thought it best to pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the heathen had defiled it: wherefore they pulled it down, and laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, until there should come a prophet to shew what should be done with them.

Then they took whole stones according to the law, and built a new altar according to the former; and made up the sanctuary, and the things that were within the temple, and hallowed the courts. They made also new holy vessels, and into the temple they brought the candlestick, and the altar of burnt offerings, and of incense, and the table. And upon the altar they burned incense, and the lamps that were upon the candlestick they lighted, that they might give light in the temple. Furthermore they set the loaves upon the table, and spread out the veils, and finished all the works which they had begun to make.

Now on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month, which is called the month Casleu, in the hundred forty and eighth year, they rose up betimes in the morning, and offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made. Look, at what time and what day the heathen had profaned it, even in that was it dedicated with songs, and citherns, and harps, and cymbals. Then all the people fell upon their faces, worshipping and praising the God of heaven, who had given them good success.

And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decked also the forefront of the temple with crowns of gold, and with shields; and the gates and the chambers they renewed, and hanged doors upon them. Thus was there very great gladness among the people, for that the reproach of the heathen was put away. Moreover Judas and his brethren with the whole congregation of Israel ordained, that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year by the space of eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu, with mirth and gladness.

(1 Macc 4:36-59)

Now Maccabeus and his company, the Lord guiding them, recovered the temple and the city: But the altars which the heathen had built in the open street, and also the chapels, they pulled down. And having cleansed the temple they made another altar, and striking stones they took fire out of them, and offered a sacrifice after two years, and set forth incense, and lights, and shewbread. When that was done, they fell flat down, and besought the Lord that they might come no more into such troubles; but if they sinned any more against him, that he himself would chasten them with mercy, and that they might not be delivered unto the blasphemous and barbarous nations.

Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the temple, on the very same day it was cleansed again, even the five and twentieth day of the same month, which is Casleu. And they kept the eight days with gladness, as in the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of the tabernacles, when as they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts. Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also, and sang psalms unto him that had given them good success in cleansing his place. They ordained also by a common statute and decree, That every year those days should be kept of the whole nation of the Jews.

(2 Macc 10:1-8)

As we know, Solomon dedicated his temple at the feast of Sukkot. The Maccabees therefore decided to celebrate this in 8 days – as the number of days of Sukkot (including Shmini Atzeret). Later, many mythical legends have been added to this story. The most common one being the story that the Menorah only had oil for one day, and it miraculously lasted for eight days. It is partly because of this legend that Hanukka has been connected to oil and light, and is today known as a “festival of lights.” This probably has more natural reasons, since it’s the darkest season of the year. But whatever the reason, we do know that God is light, and his light is always worth celebrating.

Jesus celebrated Hanukka – “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.” (John 10:22).

God never commanded us to keep this holiday. But it is a memory of a significant miracle that he did for us. It is remembering that Jesus is the light of the world. And it is remembering that our body is a temple for the Holy Spirit, and Jesus redeemed us by his blood, and cleaned our heart, just as Judah Maccabee redeemed the physical temple. This holiday is about getting all idol worship out of our hearts and not let the enemy put it there. Be zealous for God. Cut off any sin. Kill any part of you that is trying to sacrifice to an idol. (Because anything can be an idol).

For Hanukka we use a chanukkia, which is a candelabra with 9 candles (not 7 as the Menorah has), with one “shamash” (which means “servant”) used to light the others, and one for each day. Confusingly enough, the chanukkia is often called a menorah in diaspora Judaism. We usually do the lightning of the candles after the stars are out (except on Shabbat, of course). This is just a tradition, but it’s a nice tradition, and it always reminds me we are all like candles, and Jesus is our “shamash.” He is the one giving us his fire, helping us to be a light to the world – and he came to serve us! He is God, he is the Lord of Lords and King of kings, and he became flesh to serve us and to die for our sins!

The dreidel is just a tradition that has developed through time, but there is a story that connects it to Hanukka – “The Jews would gather in caves to study Torah, posting a lookout to alert the group to the presence of Greek soldiers. If soldiers were spotted, the Jews would hide their scrolls and spin tops, so the Greeks thought they were gambling, not learning.” (From Wikipedia).

Traditional food is anything oily, especially “latkes” and “suvganiot” (google it). This has to do with the “oil” legend and the obvious relation between fire, light, and oil (well, it was obvious a few hundred years ago). Again, another reminder of the Messiah – the anointed one. But I try not to use that as an excuse to get fat….

I’d like to finish with a quote from the New Testament about who is really the true light of the world:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

(John 1:1-14)

The temple was built for God, but blasphemed by the heathen, and the Maccabees rededicated it to God.

We were created for God, but we are ruined by our sin. Jesus is the one rededicating us to God, giving us a new heart and spirit when we are saved through his grace.

Jesus is the light of the world, and he lights us with his spirit. He is our shamash. He came to die for our sins, when we didn’t deserve it at all.

Happy Holiday!

This article originally appeared on Tuvia’s blog, December 12, 2020, and reposted with permission.