What is the story behind the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah?
Hanukkah—the Jewish holiday that typically shares winter calendar space with Christmas—is not the “Jewish version” of the traditional Christian celebration, though it is often mistaken as such. Although Hanukkah decorations are sold alongside Christmas trimmings and gifts are often exchanged on both holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah commemorate separate miraculous events.
The Christmas story celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe to be the Son of God and the promised Messiah of Israel. However, the story of Hanukkah predates the start of Christianity by nearly two hundred years. Hanukkah celebrates an earlier and lesser-known miracle of God on behalf of the Jewish people.
The History of Hanukkah
The history of Hanukkah is closely tied to the history of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The first temple was built by Solomon, the son of King David of Israel, and dedicated in 953 BCE.1 This holy place of worship was completely destroyed in 586 BCE by invading Babylonians led by King Nebuchadnezzar.2
When Jews began to be allowed to return from captivity in Babylon, construction of a second temple was begun. It was completed in 515 BCE.3 This second temple stood until 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed it and the city of Jerusalem.
However, in the interim, the structure was desecrated by pagan sacrifice and worship. During an especially turbulent time in Jewish history, Israel came under the control of the Syrians. One of their kings outlawed the Jewish religion, ordering the Jews to worship Greek gods instead. In 186 BCE, a Syrian army massacred thousands of Jews and erected altars to Zeus in the temple, where they sacrificed unclean animals.4
In response to this desecration, Judas Maccabeus took action:
Judas Maccabeus and his followers, under the leadership of the Lord, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. They tore down the altars which foreigners had set up in the marketplace and destroyed the other places of worship that had been built. They purified the Temple and built a new altar. Then, with new fire started by striking flint, they offered sacrifice for the first time in two years, burned incense, lighted the lamps, and set out the sacred loaves. After they had done all this, they lay face down on the ground and prayed that the Lord would never again let such disasters strike them. . . . They rededicated the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, the same day of the same month on which the Temple had been desecrated by the Gentiles. The happy celebration lasted eight days.5
Thus Hanukkah was born, for “everyone agreed that the entire Jewish nation should celebrate this festival each year.”6
The Miracle of Hanukkah
Now you may be thinking to yourself, That’s a neat story, but there’s nothing particularly miraculous about it. Well, though that’s the foundation of Hanukkah, that’s not the whole story. According to the Jewish Talmud—a vast collection of Jewish laws and oral traditions and their interpretations—Judas Maccabeus (also called Judah Maccabee) and the other Jews who took part in the temple rededication in 165 BCE witnessed a great miracle there.
Many of the ceremonial instruments of Jewish worship had been stolen when the temple was ransacked. Maccabee ordered these to be restored, including the symbolic menorah—a golden candelabra with six branches for burning oil. The menorah had been a part of Jewish worship beginning with Moses and the wilderness Tabernacle (the portable place of worship that preceded the temple in Jerusalem). Consecrated oil was always burning in the temple from sunset to sunrise.7
To cleanse the temple of the defilement of pagan worship and restore it to its proper use, a new menorah was lit with only the small supply of consecrated olive oil on hand—which was barely enough for one night. However, the light miraculously continued burning for a full eight days and nights, continuing until a new supply of oil arrived.
This is why today the traditional Hanukkah candelabra, the hanukiah, features eight main branches.8 (A ninth candle, called the shamash or “helper,” is used to light the others.) One candle is lit every night to commemorate those eight light-filled nights. This is also where Hanukkah gets its second name, the Festival of Lights.
The Traditions of Hanukkah
As it was with the first celebration of the temple’s rededication, Hanukkah takes place over eight days, beginning on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Kislev (between November and December). It includes the lighting of one of eight candles on the hanukiah each evening, along with the reciting of special prayers remembering God’s faithfulness to Israel.
Foods fried in oil are typically enjoyed, including latkes (pancakes made of vegetables, legumes, or other starches) and sufganiyot (round donuts filled with jelly or custard). These fried delicacies are meant to remind celebrants of the miraculous provision of temple oil.
Other Hanukkah traditions include a children’s game involving a spinning, four-sided top called a dreidel. Each side of the dreidel is inscribed with a letter of the Jewish alphabet. The letters (nun, gimel, hei, and shin) form an acronym that stands for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which means “a great miracle happened there.” The child who spins the dreidel receives a prize of gold-covered chocolate coins called gelt, depending on which letter the dreidel lands on.
Although gifts were not originally a part of the Hanukkah celebration, in recent times—and particularly in North America—Hanukkah “has exploded into a major commercial phenomenon, largely because it falls near or overlaps with Christmas.”9
The Significance of Hanukkah
Although Hanukkah is not considered to be among the most important Jewish holidays (such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Passover), because of its commercialization and nearness to Christmas it is perhaps better known among non-Jews. It is, however, a holiday rich in tradition and imagery for the Jewish people. Hanukah celebrates and commemorates God’s miraculous provision for them—particularly in times of persecution and change.
That is why, in this season of remembrance, Jews around the world gather by the burning candles of the hanukiah and repeat these ancient, solemn words:
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us
with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who performed miracles
for our forefathers in those days, at this time.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life,
sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.10