Chanukah is one of the most widely observed of Jewish holidays although it is actually a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. Lighting the Chanukah candleabra with its nine branches is a special mitzvah to publicize the miracle of Chanukah by lighting candles in such a way that they can be seen from the street. The tradition of giving Chanukah gelt –money is an old one. The proximity of the festival to Christmas has made gift giving an intrinsic part of the holiday especially in America. In Israel, elaborate gift giving is not widely practiced. Since Chanukah came into being almost two centuries before Jesus, he would have celebrated it. In the Gospel of John it is recorded: “The feast of the Dedication was taking place in Jerusalem. It was winter” (John 10:22).
The festival of Chanukah (literally ‘consecration’ or ’dedication‘) is an eight day festival, commencing on 25 Kislev which falls in winter in the northern hemisphere.
There are a number of transliterated spellings of the Hebrew, Hanukkah/Hanukah. It commemorates the successful Maccabean revolt against the religious persecution instigated by the Hellenizing Syrians under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (2nd century BC). Part of the struggle was in fact, a struggle between Hellenism and its values and Judaism and its values. The Jewish practices such as the Sabbath and circumcision were outlawed. The worship of Greek gods and the sacrifice of pigs replaced the traditional worship in the temple. Some Jews eagerly flocked to the gymnasium, symbol of the Greek emphasis on the beauty and strength of the body. Others resisted Hellenism and died as martyrs.
The traditional version of the story is that an uprising was led by Mattathias, an old Hasmonean priest, who was so enraged when he saw a Jew about to offer a pig as sacrifice on an altar set up in order to show obedience to Antiochus’s decree that he killed him. He and his five sons then retreated to the mountains and began a guerilla war against the Hellenized Syrians and their Jewish allies. Before Mattathias died he passed on the leadership to Judah the Maccabee. Finally he and his followers liberated Jerusalem and the defiled Temple that was then rededicated to the worship of God. It was recorded in Talmud (Shabbat 21b) that only one cruse of uncontaminated oil was found by the victorious Jews. Though normally sufficient for one day only when they lit the Temple Menorah with it, it miraculously lasted for eight days.
Chanukah is the most historically documented of the Jewish holidays. The earliest source for the story is found in the First and Second Book of Maccabees. Although the books tell the history of the Maccabees they did not become part of the Hebrew Bible. They are a part of the Apocrypha, a group of fourteen books of the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible) that were not included in the Jewish canon They were preserved by the Christian Church. The story also appears in the works of Josephus the Jewish historian of the first century of the Common Era, where there is a no mention of the miracle, but he does call the holiday “Lights.” There are some later accounts in the Talmud and other rabbinic literature. There is even a mediaeval work called Megillat Antiochus – The Scroll of Antiochus – which is modeled after the Biblical Book of Esther. This scroll which speaks of both the miracle and the victory downplays Judah’s role and instead makes his brother Jonathan the chief hero.
The story found in the First and Second Books of Maccabees (with some variations between the two books) is fairly similar to the traditional one except for one major exception – there is no mention of the cruse of oil or of the miracle. While both books mention the cleansing and rededication of the temple and briefly the relighting of the lamps in the temple, there is no mention of the cruse of oil or the miracle. Chanukah is specifically instituted for eight days not because of the miracle of the menorah, but because it is modeled after the holiday of Sukkot that the Maccabees could not observe while they were still fugitives in the mountains of Judea (II Macc.10: 6-7). II Maccabees has many accounts of martyrdom e.g. Eliezer a scribe in his nineties who refused to east pork (II Macc, 6:18-31), Hannah and her seven sons (II Macc, 7:1-41) these stories also appear in rabbinic literature (Gittin 57b; Lamentations Rabbah 1:16:50).
During the Middle Ages, these stories of martyrdom became and important focus and these martyrs served as model to Jews under persecution,
It is only in the Gemara (the later rabbinic material that together with the Mishnah makes up the Talmud) that there is mention of the miracle. In the Tractate Shabbat 23b, the Gemara asks, “What is Chanukah?” and answers by saying that the Greeks defiled the temple and when the Hasmoneans (another name for the Maccabees and their descendants) defeated them, they found only one cruse of oil with its seal unbroken. It contained oil for only one day but the menorah burned for eight days.
The major observance associated with Chanukah is the lighting of the menorah. One light is added each night after sundown. Oil, particularly olive oil should be used but most people today use candles. The menorah has space for eight candles (or oil and wicks) that are placed in a straight line so it is easy to see how many candles are burning and what night of Chanukah it is. The candle used for lighting the other candles is placed in a position that differentiates it from the others. It is called shamash, meaning ‘servant.” The eight primary candles may not be used for practical purposes.
Blessings before lighting the candle/s: Praised are you, Lord out God, Ruler of the universe who has sanctified our lives through His commandments, commanding us to kindle the Hanukkah Lights. Praised are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, for performed miracles for our ancestors, in those days, in this season.
On the first night: Praised are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us and for helping us to reach this moment.
It is an old custom to play games, the most popular being dreidel (Yiddish from the German drehen which means to turn), sevivon in Modern Hebrew. Though the rabbis of the Middle Ages opposed playing games of chance, they permitted them during the long nights of Hanukkah. The dreidel is a top with a different Hebrew letter inscribed on each of the four sides – nun, gimel, heh, shin. They form an acronym for the phrase Nes gadol haytah sham – A great miracle happened there.” In Israel the letter shin is replaced by a peh – “A great miracle happened here.” Another dreidel game it to try and knock down other spinning dreidels.
It is customary to eat foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (Ashkenazim) or sufganiyot– a type of doughnut (Sephardim) so as to be reminded of the miracle of the oil.
In the synagogue the complete Hallel (Psalms 113 118) is recited every morning. Many end the service with Psalm 30. The special Al Hanisim (“For the Miracles”) prayer has been added to the Amidah prayer and to the Grace after Meals. There is an old custom of lighting the menorah in the synagogue before ma-ariv in order to proclaim the miracle. The synagogue is seen as mikdash me’at – a miniature temple. Even though it is merely a custom, the blessings are recited. However, the lighting of the menorah in the synagogue does not fulfill the mitzvah and the person who does so should light the menorah at home. Some synagogues light the menorah in the morning as well, but no blessing is recited. There is no evident source for this latter custom, however, just as with electric menorahs in public buildings, both practices serve to make known the miracle.
Bibliography: Kolatch, The Jewish Book of Why (Jonathan David Publishers New York 2004); Newman & Sivan, Judaism A-Z (Dept of Torah Education and Culture, Jerusalem 1980); Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays (Harper & Row, New York 1985).