What is Hanukkah? (posted 12-5-02)

Some think that Hanukkah was developed to simply provide a Jewish substitute for Christmas. It might surprise you to know that the Jews begam celebrating Hanukkah 164 years before Christ. This is documented by Jewish historian, Josephus, and the Apocryphal books of I & II Maccabees. Here is the background. In 167 B.C. a cruel Syrian leader known as Antiochus IV Epiphanes conquered Jerusalem and prohibited all Jewish worship. He dedicated the Jewish Temple to Zeus, installing an idol of Zeus. Tradition says he even sacrificed a sow to Zeus at the Jewish Holy Temple and forced Jews to bow to Zeus. An aged Jewish priest named Mattathius rebelled, fleeing to the hills with his sons and many other devout Jew. They engaged in guerilla warfare, doing very well, though greatly out-numbered. When Mattathius was killed, his son, Judas Maccabeus, became the leader of this Jewish uprising. He is recognized today as one of the great military leaders of all time. This Jewish band of soldiers mixed strategy and bravery with crying out to God and reading the Torah together. They won a great victory. By 164 B. C. the Syrians recognized God was fighting for these Jews and gave them their independence.

Their Holy Temple at Jerusalem was in shambles, defiled and desecrated by foreign soldiers and idolatry. They repaired, cleansed and sought to rededicate their temple. When it came time to light the Menorah (Golden Lamp stand), they could not find the special oil. Searching the temple, they finally found one small jar of oil bearing the pure seal of the Jewish High Priest. Miraculously, this oil made the Menorah burn for eight days, until the High Priest could produce and dedicate more oil. The Menorah was lighted on the 25th day of Kislev, as recorded in I Maccabees 4:49-59. The last verse (59) states that Judas and his brothers, along with a great assembly of Jewish people, declared that this Feast would be celebrated every year beginning on the 25th day of Kislev and continuing for eight days. That is how Hanukkah began, and has continued to this day.

Hanukkah always begins in the Jewish calendar on the 25th day of Kislev. This varies in our calendar but normally comes between our Thanksgiving and Christmas. As I write these words, Jews all over the world are celebrating “Hanukkah.” This Jewish year of 5763 began on our September 7th. This year Hanukkah began November 29th and continues through December 7th . This Jewish year is a leap year, which adds an extra month making a 13-month year. Next year, Hanukkah will begin on our December 25th making our Christmas and the Jewish Hanukkah come at the very same time? This has happened before, but not often.

So what does Hanukkah mean to Jews? The Hebrew word, “Hanukkah” means “dedication.” In fact, it has also been called the “Feast of Dedication” as it is referred to in John 10:22. Josephus called it the “Feast of Lights.” It is a time of rejoicing for one of the great victories of Jewish History. It also honors a great Jewish hero, Judas Maccabeus. Those who celebrate this feast do not normally fast, nor take any days off work (except the Sabbath) during this feast. It is all done in the evenings of these eight days. Not having the original Menorah, some have made special Menorahs, but in most cases, Hanukkah is celebrated in Jewish homes by lighting eight (8) candles, one each night, beginning on the 25th of Kislev. Just after dark as the family gathers, they repeat a blessing in Hebrew (or English) and light the first candle. Each succeeding night of the eight days, an additional candle is lighted just after dark with one exception. Of course, Hanukkah always includes a Sabbath during those eight days. On the Friday night, which begins the Jewish Sabbath, the candle is lighted eighteen minutes before sunset. This simply recognizes this special Sabbath night during Hanukkah. Each evening these candles remain lighted for a minimum of 30 minutes. One additional note, they light the candles from right to left. Why? One reason may be that the Hebrew language reads from right to left.

Following the candle lighting, there is feasting, singing, games, and rejoicing together. Though this is a pre-Christian Jewish feast, the parties and gift exchanging have probably been increased by the Christmas influence.

So, I would encourage you to greet Jewish friends with a “Happy Hanukkah!” Send them a Hanukkah card or give them a Hanukkah gift but include a tract about Christ. Ask them to tell you about their Hanukkah celebration and listen carefully. By taking interest in their celebration, you might earn their attention to explain why we celebrate Christmas, who Jesus is and if possible, share the plan of salvation.

There won’t be many more Hanukkahs until the greatest Jewish hero in history (far greater than Judas Maccabeus); our Lord Jesus Christ will come. During the tribulation period, a great host of Jews will recognize Him as their Messiah, be saved, and Christians and saved Jews will be united in Him! Maranatha, Amen!         

                                     © 2002 D. B. Martin

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