Hanukkah.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 December

The Hebrew lunisolar calendar doesn’t sync with the western solar calendar. That’s why its holidays tend to “move around”: They don’t really. Passover is always on the same day, 15 Nisan, but in our calendar it wobbles back and forth between March and April. Likewise Hanukkah is always on the same days, 25 Kislev to 2 Tevet. But in the western calendar, in 2022, this’d be sundown 18 November to sundown 26 December.

Christians sometimes ask me where Hanukkah is in the bible, so I point ’em to this verse:

John 10.22 KJV
And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.

The “feast of the dedication” is Hanukkah. The word חֲנֻכָּה/khanukká (which gets transliterated all sorts of ways, and not just because of its extra-phlegmy kh sound) means “dedication.” Other bible translations make it more obvious—

John 10.22 NLT
It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication.

—because their translators didn’t want you to miss it, whereas other translators figure that’s on you.

Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday which celebrates the Hasmoneans’ rededication of the temple in 165BC.

History lesson time!

Alexander “the Great” of Macedon, founder of the Greek Empire, had conquered Jerusalem in 332BC. But he died in 323, and the Greek Empire died with him—it was divided between his generals. Seleucus Nicator took the middle eastern part and made it the Seleucid Empire. And then the generals and their descendants fought one another, but that’s a whole other story.

Two centuries later, Antiochus Epiphanes (or Antiochus 4) became the Seleucid Empire’s king, and decided his entire empire—in particular the Jews, who were doing their own thing—was gonna conform to the Greek paganism the rest of them practiced. He banned circumcision, desecrated the temple by putting a statue of Zeus in it (figuring, as Grecian pagans did, they all worshiped the same gods under different names, so YHWH was Zeus anyway), and sacrificed a pig on the altar.

Many Jews capitulated, but one family of priests, the descendants of Asmoneus (hence they’re the “Hasmoneans”) would not.

Judah Maccabee (KJV “Judas Maccabeus”) in particular. His nickname מַכְבִּי/Makhéby means “extinguisher” (of persecutors), although a lot of folks insist it means “hammerer,” which sounds way more badass. The Hasmoneans frequently get called the Maccabees, even though only Judah had that nickname. Anyway, Judah’s insurgency actually worked, and drove the Seleucids out of Jerusalem. Not once and for all; other battles eventually got Judah killed. But at least they were out of the temple, which the Hasmoneans rededicated, and rebuilt the altar from scratch. Then they celebrated a feast. That’d be Hanukkah.

You can find the story in the apocrypha:

2 Maccabees 10.1-8 GNT
1 Judas Maccabeus and his followers, under the leadership of the Lord, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. 2 They tore down the altars which foreigners had set up in the marketplace and destroyed the other places of worship that had been built. 3 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. 4 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 begged him to be merciful when he punished them for future sins and not hand them over any more to barbaric, pagan Gentiles. 5 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. 6 The happy celebration lasted eight days, like the Festival of Shelters, and the people remembered how only a short time before, they had spent the Festival of Shelters wandering like wild animals in the mountains and living in caves. 7 But now, carrying green palm branches and sticks decorated with ivy, they paraded around, singing grateful praises to him who had brought about the purification of his own Temple. 8 Everyone agreed that the entire Jewish nation should celebrate this festival each year.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, when the Hasmoneans lit the temple’s lamps, they hadn’t enough oil for more than a day. But God miraculously stretched it out for eight.

The Gemara asks: What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Ta’anit: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings. Shabbat 21b.10

Most people emphasize the miracle, which is why Hanukkah is often known as the “festival of lights” instead of the “festival of the dedication.”

Anyway after the Seleucids were finally driven out once and for all, the Hasmoneans became the temple’s head priests… and the head priests became Judea’s kings, and ruled Israel until the Romans put Herod into power. So, ultimately not a happy ending. But let’s get back to Hanukkah.

Hanukkah customs.

Hannukah is actually a minor Jewish holiday. It’s not Jewish Christmas, although it’s totally borrowed ideas from the more popular holiday. (Decorating stuff in blue is a very recent thing; somebody realized since the Israeli flag is blue and white, why not decorate things in blue and white?) In Christian-dominant countries it’s become a much bigger deal, ’cause Jews feel the need to emphasize they’re not Christian… even though they’ll totally participate in secular Christmas activities, ’cause they’re fun.

Customs include the hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah: Unlike a usual Jewish menorah, which holds either seven candles or oil lights, the hanukkiah holds nine—one for the eight days, and one for the center candle used to light the other lights. A new light is lit for each day. Prayers and hymns are said. Small gifts are given, or charities are given to. Fried foods (’cause the miraculous oil, remember?) are eaten: Potato pancakes, jelly doughnuts, fried chicken, fritters, you name it. Kids get chocolate coins. There are games played with a dreidel, which you spin to win nuts, pennies, or more chocolate coins. But Hanukkah isn’t a Sabbath-like holiday: You can still go to work and school, although Israeli children get the week off.

Christians rarely celebrate Hanukkah, unless they’re Jewish or have Jewish family members, or they’re in some cult which ignores Christmas and figures Hanukkah is biblical enough. For the most part we ignore it and pay more attention to the Christmas season. But many Christians, like we do with Advent, choose to look at Hanukkah, or even celebrate it, as a much better alternative to all the secular Christmas hoopla: It’s more God-focused, more spiritual, more historical, more of an emphasis on God’s providence. Plus there’s chocolate and donuts. (Better: Chocolate donuts!)

Christian customs tend to include reading John 10, and emphasize how Jesus is the light of the world, Jn 8.12 as the Hanukkah lights remind us. And though it’s not so much the emphasis, we ought also to remember Jesus declared us the light of the world, Mt 5.14 provided we get out there and let everyone know the Lord has come—and, as we recognize during advent, is coming again!