Hanukkah is one of the happier Jewish festivals. It does not appear in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) because the events surrounding it occurred in the year 165 B.C.E., after the closing of the Hebrew Bible. But in the New Testament, it is mentioned once. John 10:22 says that people were gathered around at the festival of dedication. But what is the meaning of Hanukkah? As we’ll see, it has several meanings.
The first is religious liberty —the right of people to celebrate their holy days and worship freely, to practice their faith. That right is being challenged even today —and, in some countries, Christians are more threatened than Jews. This is something Christians and Jews ought to be able to, and can, work on together.
Second, the Jews’ rededication of the Temple after it was defiled should remind us that each of us is a small temple, with God’s presence in our hearts. And we need to rededicate ourselves to God —to purify our hearts, to change.
Third, Hanukkah teaches us we must separate and pull out the good parts of the culture in which we live. We have to discern – to pick and choose – the values of America we really want for ourselves and our children. Because the forces of secularism are so strong, this takes a strong personality and family background. It was the same in ancient times — “Hellenism” was a very attractive option for a lot of Jews, just as accommodating to secular culture is today.
The final dimension is trust in God.
As you’ll see, it took great faith for the Maccabees to rise up against this great Hellenist society. And it also took great courage and great trust to light that first candle, knowing that it would go out in 24 hours. We need to light the candle in the darkness when we have the opportunity to do so.
At Hanukkah, we commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over the Greek/Syrian forces of King Antiochus in the year 165 B.C.E. That regime, those oppressors, sought to impose paganism on the Jewish people. There were some Jews who assimilated and accepted that culture. They thought — “Well, this is Greece, this is Rome, this is the way of modernity. The old way of the Bible is passé. It’s antiquated. It’s time to move on.” And they tried to convince the Jews through all sorts of means the value of paganism over the Bible, over Judaism. They put a pagan idol, Zeus, in the Temple, and they forced Jews to eat non-kosher food. They forbade circumcision, which the Bible says is the sign of the covenant between God and Israel. Many Jews adapted to this culture that had been forced on them.
Finally, though, a group of people said to their fellow Jews, “Hey, enough here! We cannot accept this impurity of putting a pagan god into the Temple, of eating non-kosher, of disobeying the Bible, of being immodest. That’s not the culture in which we were brought up. We’re not going to take this anymore — we’re going to stand up for the Jewish values and the Bible that brought us to this place.” A group called the Maccabees, led by a man named Mattathias and his brothers, revolted against these Hellenistic authorities.
And by the 25th day of the month of Kislev — the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, but usually this date falls during December — they regained control over the Temple, cleansed it from defilement, and rededicated it. And that’s what Hanukkah means – “rededication.”
Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday because we see in the Bible that anytime there was a dedication of the Temple, it was an eight-day celebration. So, when the Temple was regained and all of the impurities and idols were removed, the celebration lasted for eight days. And this is more than just the celebration of victory in a physical battle. Zechariah 4:6 says, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” This became an important verse for Hanukkah, and is in fact written on the menorah in Jerusalem that stands across from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. It serves to remind us not just of the military victory, but of the ultimate triumph of God and the spiritual victory of the Jews over their oppressors.
In the Temple, an eternal flame had to stay lit all the time. Walk into any synagogue today and you will see something commemorating that eternal flame, though now it’s usually a light bulb. This signifies that God’s presence is there all the time, in the same way that we light an eternal flame in memory of a president or great person to signify that their spirit never dies. But when they came into the Temple to light the eternal flame, there was only one flask of clean, pure olive oil to use, just enough to keep the flame burning for one day. Only pure oil could be used — not oil that had been touched by the pagans and used for sacrifices to the pagan gods. There would not be enough oil, as it would take eight days to go out and get more.
But they went ahead and lit the flame anyway, which sends a beautiful message of trusting in God. Some might have said, “Why bother? It will go out anyway after a day, and then we’ll have to wait for the oil.” But they trusted in God, and a miracle occurred — the lamp that was only to last for one day stayed lit for eight days until the new oil arrived. This is how Hanukkah became the “Festival of Lights.”
A Christian pastor friend of mine said he thinks that Hanukkah is a critical holiday for Christians, too. “Why?” I asked, knowing the reference in John, but nothing more. He said that if the Jewish Maccabees had not risen up against their oppressors, then secularism and paganism would have controlled the Jewish people. And if it would have controlled the Jewish people, Jesus would not have been born as a Jew, lived a Jewish life, seen the Temple, and had the Bible. Judaism would have been wiped out. He’s right that Hanukkah is a very important holiday. There is an attempt in every generation to rid the world of the Jewish people. And there are those who want to accommodate and negotiate and be flexible. But we must draw a line in the sand. When they try to take away my faith I cannot accommodate, I cannot adjust, and I cannot compromise. The Maccabees drew that line in the sand, and they triumphed. If not for their triumph, those authorities would have destroyed Judaism, and Jesus the Jew would not have been around 165 years later.
How's Hanukkah celebrated..........
During Hanukkah, we light the menorah — one candle each night representing the miracle of that day, so that by the end of the eight-day holiday we have eight candles lit. We place the menorah by a window so that people can see the miracle that happened here. The liturgy for Hanukkah differs for Jews living in Israel and in the diaspora (meaning outside of Israel). Outside of Israel, we say, “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, we say, “A great miracle happened here.”
There is also a custom of giving gifts, especially to children.
Because it typically falls so close to Christmas, Hanukkah carries with it a message of hope, miracles, and bringing light into the world that is embraced by both Christians and Jews. To deepen your understanding of the important lessons and reflections that can be found in the Hanukkah story, Rabbi Eckstein has prepared a series of devotions for each of the eight days of the observance. In addition, you can use our “What is Hanukkah?” Bible Study for more insights VIEW THE LINKS BELOW