The Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins this Saturday evening at sundown. The Hebrew word Hanukkah means “dedication,” and the significance of this will be discussed below. The eight day festival in 2012 runs from Sunday, December 9 to Sunday, December 16. It is a holiday period of historical and religious significance to Jews all over the world. But Hanukkah should probably also be of importance to Latter-day Saints and other Christians, for without Hanukkah there would have been no Christmas!
The ancient Jewish people in the Land of Israel faced a grave threat when the Greco-Syrian despot Antiochus IV became king of the Seleucid empire in 175 BC. Syria controlled Judea at the time, but the Jews had been treated with tolerance by previous Syrian rulers. Antiochus IV, however, saw himself as a Greek deity in human form (he even adopted for himself the title Epiphanes) and his goal was to convert all the peoples of his realm to the worship of the Greek pantheon. This was not so difficult for many of his subjects across the fertile crescent, who worshipped polytheistic pantheons of their own – for many it was merely a matter of adapting Greek deity names, such as Zeus, to their own gods.
But for the Jews things were different. Their Torah (the five books of Moses) taught of only one God – the God of Israel. Their greatest commandment was to love the Lord, their God, with all their heart (Deuteronomy 6:5), and the first and foremost of their ten commandments forbade the worship of any other gods (Exodus 20:3). The vast majority of the Jews of Judea vigorously resisted the Syrian conversion program. So Antiochus had his troops occupy Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple of Zerubbabel. The ordinances and ceremonies which honored the God of Israel were replaced with pagan rites, and the Temple was converted into a pagan shrine for Zeus and Antiochus. The Temple altar was defiled by having pigs slaughtered on it by false priests – acts of open disdain for Jewish values and tradition, and the Law of Moses.
Jewish religion and worship in general were outlawed. Their scriptures (books of what we now call the Old Testament) were confiscated and burned. Just possessing a scroll of the scriptures, or even participating in ordinances and practices such as circumcision and prayer to the Lord, became a capital crime, punishable by death.The historical book of First Maccabees reports that “women who had circumcised their children they (the Syrians) put to death under the decree, hanging the babies around their necks, and destroying their families and the men who had circumcised them” (1 Maccabees 1:60). Had not something happened to change the course of Antiochus’ program of cultural genocide against the Jews, their religion and identity might have been obliterated within a few generations.
But something did happen. In 167 BC, inspired and led by an Aaronic priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, the people of Judea revolted against the Syrian occupiers. Their war of independence was led by an Aaronic priest known as Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabee, who was also a priest. Often called the Hasomonean Revolt, or alternatively the Maccabean Revolt, the Jewish insurrection gained strength and was ultimately successful in repulsing the Syrian forces. By the winter month of Kislev (parallel to our December) in 164 BC, the Jewish freedom fighters had recaptured Jerusalem’s sacred Temple Mount, and liberated the Temple of Zerubbabel from the pagan Syrians. As the war continued, the Maccabean Jewish forces eventually drove the Syrians out of the Land of Israel.
Having freed Jerusalem, the Jews undertook to cleanse and rededicate their holy Temple. According to rabbinic tradition, recorded in the Talmud (TB Shabbat 21:b), when the Hasmonean priests of Aaron entered the Temple they found only one clay jar of the consecrated olive oil used to light the great seven-branched lamp (menorah) in the Temple’s holy place. The single jar was enough oil for the lamp to burn for a single day. But anxious to rededicate the edifice, the high priest poured the oil into the seven cups on the menorah branches, and lit the lamps.
The oil that was only enough for one day burned for eight whole days, enough time for the dedication ceremonies to be completed, and also for new oil to be pressed and consecrated. This miraculous multiplication of consecrated olive oil was seen as a sign that God had been with the Jews in establishing their freedom and saving their religion and identity. The eight-day dedication period was celebrated by the Jews in Israel, and eventually throughout the world, each winter from that very year until the present, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev. The celebration has always been known as festival of Hanukkah, the “feast of dedication.”
Jews today have a number of traditional practices which belong to their Hanukkah celebrations. The first, and most important, is the lighting of Hanukkah lights. A nine-branched Hanukkah menorah (known in Hebrew as a Hanukkiah) is the main instrument of the lighting (the word is pronounced ha-NOO-kee-yah). Small candles or vials of olive oil are placed in the nine arms of the Hanukkiah menorah, one of which is elevated above the other eight.
On the first night of Hanukkah, the elevated candle (known as the Shamash) is lit, followed by one other candle which represents the first day of Hanukkah. On the second night of Hanukkah, the Shamash and two candles are lit, on the third night three, and so forth until the eighth night of Hanukkah, when the Shamash and all eight candles are lit. The lighted Hanukkiah is placed in on a windowsill each night so that all in the community can see that the Jewish family in the home is celebrating the festival.
Other Hanukkah activities include the preparation and eating of foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (spicy, fried potato pancakes) and special donuts with fruit or crème filling. Hanukkah donuts are known as sufganiyot. Treats fried in oil are a reminder of the miracle of the oil at the first Hanukkah. The centuries-old practice of giving children coins to spend at Hanukkah has evolved into a gift-giving tradition for the modern holiday season. And children often play a Hanukkah game for pieces of candy by spinning a small, four-sided top called a dreidel. Four Hebrew letters appear on the four sides of the top, representing the phrase “a great miracle happened there” – a reference to the miracle of the olive oil.
In some sources Hanukkah is called a minor festival, but this is only because it is not mandated in the Torah (the biblical Law of Moses). In practice it is a major Jewish holiday period, widely celebrated and loved in America, in the State of Israel, and where ever Jews are found worldwide. It is amazing to think that Hanukkah has been continuously celebrated for 2176 years!
Those who celebrate Christmas each December may find it of special interest to know that the Savior himself celebrated Hanukkah. Jesus, of course, was genuinely Jewish, and traveled to Jerusalem for all of the Jewish festivals. The Gospel of John reports that “It was ... the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22–23). The “feast of the dedication” mentioned by John was Hanukkah, celebrated, of course, during winter.