A brief study of Hanukkah, its traditions, and its significance to Messianic believers
This study is the result of the past several years of research I have done into the subject and study of Hanukkah, compiled into one document. It is, by no means, intended to be a exhaustive “how-to” guide, but rather a good starting point for those who are interested.
What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday to commemorate the rededication of the Temple in the second century BCE after it was pillaged and desecrated by the King Antiochus IV of Greece. It is celebrated from the twenty-fifth of Kislev to the second or third of Tevet. 1 On the Gregorian calendar this can fall anywhere from late November to late December.
Hanukkah in the Scriptures is referred to as “the dedication of the altar” (1 Maccabees 4:56, 59) and the “Feast of Dedication” (John 10:22). The first century CE historian Flavius Josephus refers to it as the “Festival of Lights”. 2 Along with Purim, Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that was established substantially after the giving of the Torah. While it is not ranked among the appointed times of Leviticus 23, it is none the less an authentically Jewish traditional holiday that has much potential to enrich our lives and communities.
What Hanukkah is Not
It is important to note that Hanukkah is not a Christmas knock-off. From a historical standpoint, Christmas as a religious holiday was instituted for the sole purpose of embracing pagans coming into the newly emerging Roman Catholic Church, while Hanukkah was all about the opposite- rejecting the pagan influence on the authentic faith. Comparing Christmas to Hanukkah, the only thing that the two holidays really have in common with one another is that they happen to coincide in a similar season of the year.
Gift-giving at Hanukkah
In recent times, gift-giving has become somewhat of a “hot topic” for Messianic families celebrating Hanukkah. Gift-giving in and of itself is not a pagan practice, and was practiced frequently by many of the righteous in Torah. 3 It must be noted, however, that while there is nothing wrong with gift-giving, by the same token the giving of gifts had nothing to do with the original Hanukkah celebration. For families which choose to engage in gift giving while celebrating Hanukkah, it is good; and for families who choose to celebrate Hanukkah without the giving of gifts, it is also good.
Hanukkah and the Birth of Yeshua, and Yeshua as the Light of the World
Several thorough studies have been done to show how Yeshua was born not during the winter months, but rather at the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles, known in Hebrew as Sukkot. Brief explanation: this conclusion is reached by calculating the priestly cycles of the twenty-four Aaronic families laid out in 1 Chronicles 24, and pinpointing the cycle in which the service of Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) would have fallen. 4 Assuming this line of reasoning is correct- and in my estimation it is- an interesting correlation is formed, linking Yeshua and Hanukkah. If Yeshua was born at Sukkot, then His conception in Mary’s womb would have occurred right around the time of Hanukkah.
Remember that Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights. It should come as no surprise that Yeshua was conceived during the Festival of Lights, given the fact that He openly claimed on multiple occasions to be “the Light of the World”. 5
12 “I am the Light of the World. He who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.”
So the Festival of Lights is when the Light of the World prepared to come to us!
Did Yeshua celebrate Hanukkah?
It is recorded in John 10:22-23, “It was the Feast of Hanukkah at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Yeshua was walking in the temple, in Solomon’s porch.”
The common argument against Yeshua having celebrated the Feast of Hanukkah is that the text does not explicitly state He was celebrating the feast- rather, that He was simply passing through while the holiday was transpiring. So the question becomes- was He celebrating the feast, or was He “just there”?
The answer is found in John 7:15, in which it is recorded, “…When it was now the midst of the feast (of Sukkot), Yeshua went up into the temple and taught.” Just a few verses prior in John 7:2, it is shown that Yeshua “would not walk in Judea” prior to the start of the Feast of Sukkot, “because the Judeans sought to kill Him.” He then went to the feast in secrecy (John 7:10).
The point here is that Yeshua made a specific point not to go to Judea in this time-frame of His ministry. So getting back to John 10:23, if “Yeshua was walking in the temple, in Solomon’s porch” at the time of Hanukkah, then He must have had a very good reason for doing so. Judging from the context of the previous feast, it is safe to assume that Yeshua did, in fact, intend to celebrate Hanukkah, as evidenced by His presence in the temple. 6
The Purpose of the Menorah
The menorah, a lampstand constructed of pure gold, was one of the original objects in the tabernacle with the Ark of the Covenant. It is discussed in detail in Exodus 25:31-40. It is this same menorah that the Prophet Zechariah recorded in his vision in Zechariah 4:2 and the Apostle John saw in the throne room of God in Revelation 4:5.
The purpose of publicly displaying the menorah during Hanukkah is twofold. The first purpose is introspective, that is, for us to remember the miracle that God wrought for His people. The second purpose is extrospective, that is, for others to see the light of God, and be drawn to it.
The Placement of the Menorah
In recent times, the Menorah is placed anywhere within the home in which it can be viewed by the entire family. In ancient times it was traditionally placed within a window facing the public, or outside the front door opposite the mezuzah of one’s home. The direction for the placement of the Menorah is recorded in the Talmud:
Gemara (Shabbat 21b)
Our Rabbis taught: “It is incumbent to place the Hanukkah lamp by the door of one’s house on the outside; if one dwells in an upper chamber, he places it at the window nearest the street. But in times of danger 7 it is sufficient to place it on the table.”
Gemara (Shabbat 22a)
Rabbah said: “The Hanukkah lamp should be placed within the hand breadth nearest the door.” And where is it placed? …On the left, so that the Hanukkah lamp shall be on the left and the mezuzah on the right.
The Miracle of the Oil
While the original menorah described in the Torah was designed with only seven candle holders (three on each side, one raised in the center), the one used at Hanukkah features nine candle holders (four on each side, one raised in the center). The reason for this is the traditional legend associated with the lighting of the menorah when the temple was being rededicated. There was only one vial of undefiled oil, enough to burn for one day’s worth of light, and yet this small amount of oil miraculously lasted for eight days. So it is traditional to use a nine-candled menorah during Hanukkah- eight candles, one for each day, and one raised candle in the middle which is used to light the other eight.
Although this account is not found in either 1 or 2 Maccabees, it has none the less survived in a number of textual sources, one of which is as follows:
Gemara (Shabbat 21b)
What is the reason of Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: “On the twenty-fifth of Kislev commence the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit the lamp therewith for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recital of Hallel and thanksgiving.” 8
Lighting the Menorah
During Hanukkah, the candles are placed in the menorah from right to left, and are lit from left to right, so that the last candle to be put in the menorah is to be the first one lit, and the first one to be put in is the last one to be lit. On the first night by placing one candle into the menorah in the spot furthest to the right. On the second night two candles are placed into the menorah in the spots furthest to the right. This continues so that on the third night there would be three candles, four on the fourth night, five on the fifth night, etc. Every night there is also one candle in the middle spot, usually a elevated higher than the rest, that is used to light the candles in order.
The candles are lit and burned every night, and replaced the following night. They are lit starting with the one that is placed furthest to the left in the candle lineup. The first candle that is lit will always be the last candle that was placed in the menorah.
Here is an interesting parallel: the last will be first, and the first will be last. This echoes Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew 20:16, that “the last will be first, and the first last.” 9 Although it might be purely coincidental, it is none the less a special thing to remember Yeshua and His teachings as we light the menorah candles during Hanukkah.
Here is a brief point of interest: it is traditional to have fried foods during Hanukkah to commemorate the miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting for all eight days. Doughnuts, fritters, and latkes (potato pancakes) are all commonly enjoyed.
Spinning the Dreidel
Dreidel is a game that is commonly played during Hanukkah. It is played by taking turns spinning a four-sided wooden top, each side of which is inscribed with a Hebrew letter which corresponds to an action taken in the game. The four letters also form an acronym for “a great miracle happened there”. The dreidels produced within the land of Israel have a slightly different acronym, reading, “a great miracle happened here”.
Hanukkah represents liberty!
One of the central themes to the book of 1 Maccabees is the ability of God’s people to unite against an oppressive force, and to fight to secure their God-given liberties- including the liberty to obey Him! Josephus says it well in the following statement.
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XII 7:7
Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.
This study is not intended by any means to be an exhaustive account of all Hanukkah practices and traditions. In many ways, this very brief study barely scratches the surface of the many deep and valuable resources there are to research. In every way, I wish you and your family a very wholesome Hanukkah celebration, both for this year, and for many years to come.
6. A big thanks to Doctor / Rabbi Scott James Trimm at the Worldwide Nazarene Assembly of Elohim (http://www.wnae.org/) for his published studies on this topic.
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