The word Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew, and recalls the triumphant events of the Maccabees and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem following its desecration by the forces of Antiochus and the Syrian-Greeks in the 2nd century BCE.
Hanukkah is first mentioned in the apocryphal books of Maccabees. According to 1 Maccabees:
“For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. Then Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication… should be observed… every year… for eight days (1 Mac. 4:56–59).”
The festival of Hanukkah recalls two primary miracles:
- That a small untrained and ill-equipped army of Jews were able to defeat the mighty forces of the Syrian-Greeks, and;
- The miracle of the oil burning for eight days.
According to the oldest traditions of Hanukkah, the heroic acts of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple are the primary points to the story. Interestingly, the “miracle of the oil” does not actually appear in the apocryphal books of Maccabees. The first place the miracle of oil appears is in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b).
The Talmud states that the forces of Antiochus were driven from the Temple, and that only a single container of ritual olive oil used to light the menorah was found which still contained the official unbroken seal of the Cohen Gadol (the High Priest). There was only enough oil for one day. However, the menorah miraculously burned in the Temple for eight days (the exact amount of time needed to create more oil).
The Gospels record that Yeshua himself observed the festival of Hanukkah:
“At the time the festival of Hanukkah took place in Jerusalem; it was winter, and Yeshua went up to the Temple and was walking in the portico of Solomon. Then a number of Jews gathered around him, and were saying to him, ‘How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’
Yeshua answered, ‘I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of me … I and the Father are One’ (John 10:22-30).”
As such, since the days of the Maccabees, the Jewish community has observed the eight days of Hanukkah. Hanukkah is indeed a Festival of Light. It recalls not only our redemption from tyranny and oppression, but is also a story of hope and covenant faithfulness. As we observe the eight nights of Hanukkah beginning tomorrow night, may we keep in mind our role to also be bearers of light. For just as our ancestors, the Maccabees, overcame the forces of an enemy power, so too are we able to overcome the forces in life that work against us. For as Romans 8:37 states, “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
Tyrants and enemies cannot quench the pintele yid (the Jewish spark), nor the light of Mashiach within each one of us. As we commemorate the rededication of the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple), may we also use this time to rededicate ourselves to living a life of Torah, avodah (service unto HaShem), and ma’asim tovim (acts of loving kindness toward all).
We have an opportunity to shine even brighter than the menorah which once stood (and will stand again) in the Temple through partnering with G-d in bringing redemption into the world, and preparing the world for the coming of Mashiach.
As we celebrate Hanukkah tomorrow night, and continue through the eight days, may each one of us experience the tremendous light of this joyous season.