What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev (or Casleu), the ninth month on the Hebrew calendar (which corresponds to November-December on the Gregorian calendar). In Hebrew, the word “Hanukkah” means “Dedication.” The story of Hanukkah is found in the apocryphal books of First and Second Maccabees.
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews’ victory over the Hellenist Syrians in the year 165 B.C.E.. Three years prior to that victory, in 168 B.C.E., the temple had been seized and dedicated to the worship of Zeus. Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek King of Syria, outlawed Jewish rituals and ordered the Jews to worship Greek idols. Many Jews, in fear of their lives, honored the new decrees of their conquerors. Others, however, decided to fight back.
The fighting began in Modiin, a village not far from Jerusalem. A Greek officer and soldiers assembled the villagers, compelling them to sacrifice swine, an animal that is considered unclean to those who put their faith in Yahweh. The officer attempted to persuade Mattathias, a Jewish High Priest, to take part in the ceremony. He refused, so another villager stepped forward and offered to do it instead. Mattathias, “inflamed with zeal,” ran to the altar and killed the man, then killed the presiding officer. His five sons and the other villagers then fled to the nearby mountains to hide, joined by other Jews who were willing to fight for their freedom. They attacked the Greek soldiers whenever possible.
About a year after the rebellion began, Mattathias died. Before his death, he put his brave son Judah Maccabee[vii] in charge of the growing army. After three years of intense fighting, the Jews defeated the Greek army, despite having significantly fewer men and weapons. They immediately began cleaning up and restoring the temple, and on the 25th day of the ninth month (Casleu), they “offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made” (I Maccabees 4:53). At long last, the temple had been restored to its former state for the worship of Yahweh, in accordance with the rituals outlined by Yahweh in the Torah. I Maccabees 4:56-59 describes the rejoicing, as well as Judah Maccabee’s decree that future generations should celebrate their victory during that ninth month of the year:
As denoted by the above passage, Judah Maccabee and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that a memorial to their miraculous triumph over the vast Syrian army should be held each year. Many folks misconstrue the word “ordained” in such a way as to indicate that Judah Maccabee was commanding the observance of a new festival. However, history has proven otherwise. Jewish national assemblies had the authority to proclaim a day of gladness, but never the power to raise such a day to a sacred status. Proof that they never intended Hanukkah as a commanded observance can be found in the fact that Judaism has never regarded Hanukkah as a commanded festival. Rather, it is a “minor festival” that many choose to keep as a remembrance of the miracle that happened in Jerusalem, combined with a celebration of the victory of good over evil.
One popular legend attached to the Hanukkah celebration involves a miracle that is mysteriously missing from the books of Maccabees. According to a legend mentioned only in the Babylonian Talmud, when Judah and his men searched for oil to light the menorah for the rededicated temple, they were only able to find a small flask that contained only enough oil to light the menorah for one day.[viii] Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, which explains why the feast lasts for eight days. However, this legend appears to be based more upon “wishful thinking” than sound evidence. Surely, if such a miracle had indeed occurred, the authors of the books of Maccabees would not have ignored or otherwise left off mentioning it to their reading audience. The fact that such a “footnote” to the Hanukkah story first appears in the Babylonian Talmud, known for its stories of folklore and magic, does not add credibility to the account.[ix]
Nevertheless, in spite of the Talmud’s apparent embellishment of the Hanukkah account, this does not detract from the event itself, a celebration that is not only recorded by the historian Josephus[x], but is also found in the Torah.
Messianic Jewish Candle Lighting Ceremony For Hanukah
In seeking a practical expression for this holy day, believers in Messiah Yeshua can incorporate many beautiful traditions. The observance is centered on the hanukiyah (9 candle menorah) and what it represents. Each evening during Hanukah family and friends gather to light the hanukiyah with the appropriate number of candles. The branches of the hanukiyah represent the eight days of Hanukah, plus one shamash candle used to light the others.
Note: the appropriate numbers of candles are placed in the hanukiyah from right to left, yet they are kindled by the shamash from left to right.
On the first night of Hanukah, after sundown, the shamash (servant) candle is lit, which in turn is used to kindle the first candle in the Menorah. The second night, we light the shamash again and use it to light the two right candles. This continues through the eight nights of the Hanukah.
During the lighting of the shamash and the appropriate number of candles, the following blessings are chanted:
Blessed are You O Lord our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our fathers in those days at this season.
Baruch Ata Adonai Elohaynu Melech ha-olam, she-ah-sah ni-seem la-ah-vo-tay-nu ba-ya-meem ha-hem baz-man ha-zeh.
(On the first night you can add)
Blessed are You O Lord our God, King of the universe, who granted us life, sustained us and permitted us to reach this season.
Baruch Ata Adonai Elohaynu Melech ha-olam, she-he-che-yanu v’kee-ma-nu v’hi-gee-ah-nu laz-man ha-zeh.
Note: Traditionally, the candles are lit from right to left. The first candle is placed on the right side of the Menorah, and the second one placed directly to the left. But lighting them starts from the left and moves to the right. Thus the first candle that is lit is the new candle added for that day. The Shammash candle (the tallest) is used to light the others.