Most of the major Jewish festivals were commanded by the Lord. But Hanukkah or the Feast of Dedication wasn’t. So to understand this celebration and remembrance which begins at sundown, December 16th lasting until sundown Wednesday, December 24th, one must re-visit ancient Middle Eastern history to the time when Alexander the Great ruled the known world.
In the early 4th Century B.C., the armies of the young Macedonian ruler conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine. But instead of subjecting the locals to cruel and tyrannical treatment he allowed them to continue observing their own religions. He even gave them a certain degree of autonomy. Many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.
When Alexander died in 332 B.C., his top three generals made war among each other over the territories he conquered. When hostilities ended Antigonus Gonatas controlled the Greek-Macedonian homeland. Seleucus Nicator ruled the area from the Mediterranean Sea and westward to present day India. Ptolemy Soter controlled the area we now call Egypt and the Holy Land.
The decades rolled on and the royal Ptolemic family produced a series of rulers named after the Grecian general. When Ptolemy Epiphanes V, died the son who was to succeed him, Ptolemy Epiphanes VI, was very young, encouraging a Syrian ruler of Greco-Assyrian decent named Antiochus Epiphanes to sense a weakness, inspiring him to invade.
As he marched toward Egypt in 168 B.C., he sacked Jerusalem, deposing the Temple high priest, Jason, and installing his brother, Menelaus, who was obedient to Epiphanes, in his place. He then moved his army south capturing Memphis. He planned to do the same against Alexandria but the Roman Empire, who considered Egypt its province, threatened war if he didn’t withdraw from Egypt. Ephinanes complied.
The Romans would continue to back-up the royal Ptolemic line because it was friendly to Rome which needed its wheat. This familial line would eventually produce the beautiful but evil Egyptian famously known as Cleopatra, her relationship with Marc Antony, and their eventual treason against and defeat at Actium.
Soon after his withdrawal from Egypt in 167 B.C., King Ephinanes learned that a rumor had spread that he was dead which led to the overthrow of Menelaus. Enraged, Ephinance marched his army once again upon Jerusalem, and with the help of friends of Menelaus, who opened the city gates for him, he re-entered and re-took the city.
He ordered his army to slaughter over eighty thousand men, women and children over a three day period. He cast at least that many into slavery but his punishment for their rebellion didn’t stop there.
Since he was a pagan, King Epiphanes hated the god of Israel and the Torah (the first five books of the Holy Bible). He began, as predicted by the prophet Daniel 350 years before1 a quest to make Judah into a totally pagan land. He outlawed the observance of the Sabbath and all other religious rites and traditions of the Jewish people. They were forced to worship the Grecian gods. He desecrated the great Temple by slaughtering a pig on its holy altar and showering its blood all over the inside. He sent soldiers out into the countryside to villages large and small to force the inhabitants to worship and made sacrifices to his pagan god, Zeus.
Some Jews who had adopted the pagan practices that Alexander the Great’s conquests had introduced to their forefathers did not oppose this oppression. But the traditionalist Jewish people did not. The vast majority of them were offended and powerless but small groups among them rose up in a refusal to submit.
One of them was a man named Mattathias. He was the local priest for his village, Modi’in. When soldiers came to his community he refused to engage in giving homage to Zeus. He was so firm in his resistance that when a member of his village, who feared the wrath of the soldiers of Ephiphanes, offered to lead everyone in giving homage to Zeus, Mattathias drew a sword and killed him. This act of conviction and courage led him and his five sons, the most famous being Judas (called Maccabeus) into a three year effort to secretly assemble a small army of resistance. Opposition groups like theirs in union eventually defeated and drove the forces of King Epiphanes from Jerusalem. Soon after the Temple was cleansed, rebuilt and rededicate.
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the re-dedication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. Thus the eight day festival was officially declared to commemorate this miracle.
The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or sometimes called a chanukkiah) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three berakhot (blessings) are recited: l’hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking G-d for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking G-d for allowing us to reach this time of year). See Chanukkah Candle Lighting Blessings for the full text of these blessings. After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. Candles can be lit any time after dark but before midnight. The candles are normally allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour, but if necessary they can be blown out at any time after that 1/2 hour. On Shabbat, Chanukkah candles are normally lit before the Shabbat candles, but may be lit any time before candlelighting time (18 minutes before sunset). Candles cannot be blown out on Shabbat (it’s a violation of the sabbath rule against igniting or extinguishing a flame). Because the Chanukkah candles must remain burning until a minimum of 1/2 hour after dark (about 90 minutes total burning time on Shabbat), some Chanukkah candles won’t get the job done. On one of the earlier nights, you might want to make sure your candles last long enough. If they don’t, you might want to use something else for Chanukkah on Shabbat, such as tea lights or even Shabbat candles.2
These miracles: the defeat of King Epiphanes; the supernatural burning of a day’s worth of oil for eight, and the re-lighting of the Jewish faith practice all came from the hand of the Almighty One. As a tribute and remembrance of these miraculous events our friends in the Jewish faith hold the yearly celebration of Hanakkuh or the Feast of Lights to this day. Even Christ in his earthly walk observed it.3
It is my hope we Gentiles become more aware of and better honor what our friends in the Jewish faith hold so dear. After all Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew. The Holy Bible you hold dear was written by Jews, about Jews, for Jews and Gentiles. The history it describes and the teachings of Jesus the Christ himself, comes from the perspective of a Jewish culture, history, language and customs. May this new awareness and respect for the Jewish roots of our faith enrich our understanding of Christ’s earthly walk, and our relationship with Him. May it also shorten the distance between our hearts and those of that special race of people He declared to be his chosen. Shalom!