Growing up they had Christmas—we had Hanukkah. I was certainly jealous of the tree, the idea of Santa Claus (whom I knew was not real from the time I could comprehend the white bearded bearer of gifts, but still, I looked to the moonlit starry sky one Christmas Eve, just to check…), stockings stuffed with goodies and the big festive meal. We spent most Christmases looking for an open restaurant or a movie theatre. There was nothing on TV but parades. It was a rough day for non-observers, long before the Seinfeld gang would invent Festivus — for the rest-of-us.
But it wasn’t all bad… we had our day—actually we had eight days! And while the song speaks of twelve days of Christmas, I knew there was only one. Hanukkah was eight days of potato latkes, driedels, parties and best of all, a new gift every night. It is true, Christmas was a prettier holiday, but Chanukah had staying power. ‘
Those were the deep perceptions of an eight-year-old Jewish American.
For those of you are who are non-Jews, maybe you grew up wondering about this Hanukkah—what’s it all about? Why do they get eight days? And what’s with the candles? How about if I share the story of Hanukkah with you in under 700 words.
ANOTHER KING WHO THOUGHT HE WAS GOD
Just like the Caesars who would come after him, Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek-Syrian ruler somehow got it into his mind that he was a deity—a god. In 168 BCE his soldiers subdued the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, dedicating it to the worship of Zeus, not Yahweh. This didn’t sit right with god-fearing Jews, but they knew they were no match for the Greek-Syrian army. A year later Judaism was outlawed and the Israelites were forced to worship the Greek gods. Anyone who continued to practice Judaism did so under the threat of death. Circumcision was banned and pigs were sacrificed on the altar in the Temple.
Less than a half hour from where I am writing this blog, in a city called Modi’in, there was a priest named Matthias. Greek-Syrian soldiers came to his village and demanded that the villagers, who had been gathered by force, bow down to an idol and eat pigs’ flesh. When Matthias refused, another Jewish man stepped forward to acquiesce. Infuriated, Matthias grabbed a sword and slew the man who would lead the Jews into idol worship. He then turned on the Syrian soldier, killing him as well.
A war for independence commenced under the leadership of the son of Matthias, Judah who was known as the Maccabee—the Hammer. Miraculously, the Maccabees defeated Antiochus and Israel was once again an independent nation. However, there was the matter of the Temple. It has been utterly desecrated by the Syrians.
The word Hanukkah means dedication and the Temple had to be rededicated and cleansed. In the Temple was a lamp, the ner tamid (eternal light) that was suppose to burn day and night.
“You shall charge the sons of Israel, that they bring you clear oil of beaten olives for the light, to make a lamp burn continually.” (Exodus 27:20)
However, according to tradition, there was only enough oil for one night. It would take eight days to get more olive oil. Still, they lit the lamp. Eight days later, when the oil arrived, the lamp was still burning, which became known as the miracle of Hanukkah. That is why we celebrate for eight days, and that it why we get/give eight gifts. It is also why we light a special menorah called a Hanukkiah with eight candles (a ninth, called the Shamash lights each candle).
Because the miracle was focused on the supernatural multiplication of oil, we fry potato latkes and suvganiot (jelly donuts!). And here is something you may not have realized. Yeshua celebrated Hanukkah! John records that Yeshua was in Jerusalem for Hanukkah. For the most part, the only time Yeshua went down to Jerusalem was for the Jewish festivals.
Then came the Festival of Dedication (Hanukkah) at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Yeshua was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. (John 10:22-23)
There you have it… the history of Hanukkah in less than 700 words! Happy Hanukkah.
BONUS: As believers, we see that ninth candle as Yeshua. He sits above the others but comes down from that position to give light to the other candles. Paul speaks of Yeshua coming down out of heaven and humbling himself, becoming a man. We read the words of Yeshua, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) and “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9)
This article originally appeared on Messiah’s Mandate, December 12, 2012, and reposted with permission.