Thoughts on Hanukkah ~ 5777

As the Festival of Hanukkah begins this evening, here are a few things to think about. First let’s look at 1 Maccabees 4.36-59, the earliest source that recounts the actions that occurred after the Greco-Syrians had been finally dealt with around 164 BCE.

Then said Judas and his brothers, “Behold, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.” So all the army assembled and they went up to Mount Zion. And they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins. (Another translation states, “the storerooms were in ruins.”) Then they rent their clothes, and mourned with great lamentation, and sprinkled themselves with ashes. They fell face down on the ground, and sounded the signal on the trumpets, and cried out to Heaven. Then Judas detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place.

They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, lest it bring reproach upon them, for the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them.  Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the temple. They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and furnished them with doors. There was very great gladness among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was removed.

Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev. (

As we read the account, we realize that (1) the cleansing and restoration did not happen overnight or even within a few days or possibly weeks, it was a major undertaking. And (2) there is no date mentioned except for the day the dedication began, the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev. In other words, the timing of the battle, victory, and the restoration is unknown – only the end result, the rededication of the Temple and its services.

Second, here is possibly a more realistic analysis of Hanukkah. Malka Z. Simkovich, in her article, Uncovering the Truth about Hanukkah makes an interesting observation:

I believe the rabbis may have been trying to distance themselves from the Hasmonean association, which has strong resonances with insurrectionist and militaristic periods in Judean history, especially the final great rebellion against Rome: The Bar Kochba revolt. In this final attempt at forcing the Romans out of Judea, Bar Kochba and thousands of his loyalists led a massive revolt the devastated the Roman economy for years. Between 132-135 CE, Shimon Bar Kochba (whose real name was Shimon bar Kosiba; he likely changed his name to “Son of a Star” to give himself some messianic mystique) brought major disaster upon the Jews living in Roman Palestine when his rebellion against Rome turned sour and scores of thousands of Jews were killed.

In other words, it was far better to remember and attribute the eight-day celebration to a miracle of “light” rather than glorify insurrectionist actions. Simkovich concludes:

Returning to this article’s original question, what lies at the essence of the holiday of Chanuka? From a historical vantage point, there is no doubt that the origin of the holiday lies in the Hasmonean military victory. However, the rabbis effectively rebranded the holiday so that instead of glorifying Hasmonean military prowess, the holiday instead glorifies the unconditional and miraculous divine light that Jews can depend on, even in the gloomiest of darkness.

Second Maccabees suggests that the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah was to make up for the missed Sukkot, Simchat Torah that should have been celebrated back in Tishrei, but wasn’t because the Temple and Jerusalem had been defiled. Speaking to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea, 2 Maccabees 1.18 states, “Since on the twenty-fifth day of Chislev we shall celebrate the purification of the temple, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you also may celebrate the festival of booths and the festival of the fire given when Nehemiah, who built the temple and the altar, offered sacrifices.”

None of the above suggests or encourages a departure from today’s ways of celebrating Hanukkah as they are a cultural and religious reality rooted in years of tradition. What it does suggest is that we look at the historic events and recognize the LORD’s hand in the situation (1 Maccabees 4.55), as well as the determination of righteous men to make a stand against evil and injustice (4.36). Equally, it is good to remember that if the Maccabees had not won and rededicated the Temple, there would have been no platform for Yeshua to stand upon and to proclaim in the Temple courts,

… “I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8.12

Or to later address the Jewish leadership plainly,

Then came the feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple area in Solomon’s Portico. The Jewish leaders surrounded him and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus replied, “I told you and you do not believe. The deeds I do in my Father’s name testify about me. But you refuse to believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” – John 10.22-30


בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לִזְּמַן הַזֶּה