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The History of Hanukkah

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The first day of Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev. Hanukkah is celebrated in either November or December, depending on the cyclical nature of the Jewish calendar. Although Hanukkah is often celebrated around Christmastime, it was first observed more than 150 years before Jesus was born!

A Brief Hanukkah History – The Rise and Fall of Leaders, Empires, and Civilizations

The true story of Hanukkah is obscure. The historical context in which the holiday of Hanukkah was born is one of war, mass-murder, torture, kidnapping, slander, and assassination (and those are just the happy parts!) Now add to the mix a dizzying array of leaders coming and going into and out of power. Entire empires and civilizations came and went during this turbulent period of 300 or so years, which saw the rise and fall of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and the Ptolemaic Kings of Egypt.

Few Historical References of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Old Testament. It is barely acknowledged in the Septuagint (the Old Testament translated into Greek during the third through first centuries BCE). Only The Apocrypha includes descriptions of the events surrounding Hanukkah in the books 1 Maccabee and 2 Maccabee. The only other source that talks about these events in any detail is the Jewish/Greek historian Josephus, who lived in the first century CE, and he is written off by many historians as a traitor and an apologist.

As a result, even casual research will reveal that historians and researchers are often deeply divided about what really happened during that time in history. And because it is in the nature of the Jewish people to ask questions, even the smallest details are hashed over and over, and alternate explanations often find their way into the Jewish canon.

How Do You Spell That? Hanukkah, Chanukah, Hanukah, Hanuka, or Hanukka?

As an example, there is disagreement about the simple question of how to spell the name of Hanukkah. Some spell it Chanukah, or Chanukkah, some prefer Hanukah or Hanukkah, some use Hanuka or Hanukka – you get the idea.

Nor does everyone agree on what the name means. To most Jews, the name means either “Festival of Lights,” or “Dedication.” But it fact, the name comes from the Hebrew word Chanu, which means 'they rested,’ and the Hebrew letters “kaf” and “hay," which are respectively the 20th and 5th letters in the Hebrew Alphabet. Together, they make “They rested on the 25th.”

This, of course, raises the question, “The 25th of what?” Hanukkah is traditionally celebrated starting on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the 9th month of the Hebrew year, making it a winter holiday. It is probably much more than a coincidence that the 25th word in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word for light, and Hanukkah is, at its heart, a festival of lights.

Symbolism of Kislev and Keshet

Kislev, a 29 or 30 day month, is associated with the idea of trust – the active trust Jewish freedom fighters had that G-d would help them overcome their enemies, and passive trust that G-d would always protect the people of Israel. Interestingly, the astrological symbol associated with Kislev is Sagittarius – the archer - who wields a bow and arrow. And the Hebrew word “keshet” which means bow, as in bow and arrow, also means rainbow, as in the sign of the covenant the Lord made for us after He sent the rains to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Menorah – The Centerpiece of the Hanukkah Celebration

For most Jews, the centerpiece of Hanukkah is the menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum, also sometimes called a Chanukiah. As you look at a menorah, you will notice that one candle is set at a different level from the other eight. That one is called the Shammash, or helper candle. Jewish law states that the regular candles are for viewing and spreading the word of the miracle only, so the Shammash is used to light the others, and for any other purpose, such as for light to read by.

The menorah itself may be made in almost any manner - glass, aluminum or other metals. Menorahs may be sleek and contemporary, or flowery and ornate, and incorporate naturalistic themes such as the Tree of Life.

The menorah should be placed in a doorway that is as visible as possible to the public, to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. If you are unable to put the menorah in a doorway, then use a window or some other place that will be highly visible.

The Three Hanukkah Prayers

On the first night of Hanukkah, place two candles in the menorah, a Shammash, at its separate level, and a single candle in the rightmost holder of the Menorah. Light the Shammash, and after using it to light the first candle, recite the following three prayers:

THE FIRST PRAYER:

'Baruch Ato Adonay Eloyheynu Melekh Ha-olam, asher kiddeshahnu b' mitsvotov, vitsivonu, lehadlik nehr, shell Chanukah.”

The translation of this prayer is:

Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.

THE SECOND PRAYER

Baruch Ato Adonay Eloyheynu Melekh Ha-olam Sheh ahsa neeseem lavoyteynu bayameem, hahaym, bahzman ha zeh

The translation of this prayer is: Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who wrought miracles for our fathers, in days of old, at this season.

THE THIRD PRAYER

Baruch Ato Adonay Eloyheynu Melekh Ha-olam Sheh-hecheeyahnu, ve-kiyemahnu, ve-heegiyahnu bahzman ha zeh

The translation of this prayer is:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this time.

On the second through eighth nights, only the first two prayers are recited. Also, on the second through eighth nights, place the candles in the menorah from right to left, but light them from left to right.

Jews also recite additional prayers during regular daily services and at Shabbat services. These prayers are thankful in character. While many Jewish holidays involve us beseeching G-d for favors, this particular holiday is meant to thank G-d.

Lighting the Menorah

Over the centuries, many cultures have evolved different traditions for lighting the Hanukkah menorah. However, there are still rules that are observed regarding the lighting and use of the candles:

  • They should not be lit until all family members are present
  • They should burn for at least a half hour after dark
  • They should not be used for any purpose other than to publicize the miracle of the holiday
  • On Shabbat, the candles must be lit before sundown, so you will need longer candles on that day to be sure they will still burn for 30 minutes after dark.

The History of Hanukkah – The Beginning; The Rule of Alexander the Great

To understand the origins of what came to be known as The Miracle of Light, history goes back to the reign of Alexander the Great. When Alexander the Great and his armies rolled through the Persian Empire in the latter half of the third century BCE, the lands on which the Jewish people lived came under his control. During his short lifetime, Alexander left the Jews mostly alone. Under his rule they were an autonomous people, free to practice Judaism without interference.

The roots of the story of Hanukkah reach back to that time, especially the year 323 BCE – the year Alexander the Great died. Because he left no children able to lead his empire, Alexander divided it among four of his Generals. But the generals all fought among themselves for control, and in the end, two dominant generals emerged – Seleucus III and Ptolemy I.

Bible scholars believe that these events were all predicted in 8 Daniel 21:22, when Daniel speaks of his vision of a ram and a goat.

The Jews In Between

By the year 301 BCE, The Persian lands (now called Iraq) of Alexander were split in two empires, with the Seleucid Dynasty controlling the North and the Ptolemies controlled the south. Sitting in between – the Jews.

For the next 125 years, the Jews lived more or less on their own in Jerusalem and Judea, which were controlled by the Ptolemies, with little or no interference. Of course, during that 125 years, Seleucids and Ptolemies were fighting over Jerusalem. In the year 199 BCE, the Seleucids finally won.

The Reign of Antiochus III

Antiochus III took over the Seleucid empire at the tender age of just 18 and immediately set about trying to destroy the Ptolemies. While he didn't accomplish that, he did manage to gain complete control of Palestine, and with it, the Jews.

The Jews thought times might now improve. The constant battle over their land had ended, and they welcomed the young King Antiochus. But, they were very wrong. While things were better for a little while, they never bargained for the troubles that would be brought by Antiochus' successor.

The great general Hannibal, having been defeated by the Romans, went to Antiochus to recover and lick his wounds. While he was there, he advised Antiochus on how to fight the Romans. He convinced Antiochus to invade Greece. When the invasion failed, the Romans declared war on Antiochus, which culminated in a loss in 190 BCE. As was common practice in those days, the Romans made Antiochus pay a great deal of money, both as war reparations and as punishment, because Antiochus had allied himself with Hannibal. To make sure that Antiochus paid, they took a hostage, whom they held for 12 years - Antiochus' son Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Taxing the Jews

Three years later, Antiochus III died and was succeeded by Seleuces IV, who still had to pay the Romans, so he taxed the Jews. The Jews were divided about paying the taxes. The High Priest Onias III objected to paying the taxes, saying it would be a sin to pay money to the Seleucid Empire. Onias' brother, Jason, disagreed, and slandered Onias to the King in order to become High Priest, a position he coveted. (There is some dispute about whether or not Jason was Onias' brother.)

Many of the finer details are unclear about this aspect of the Hanukkah story, for the reasons mentioned above, but also because over the years, translations from language to language may have changed what were very similar names.

The Allure of Greek Culture

In 175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, having returned after being a hostage to the Romans for 12 years, killed Seleuces IV and took the throne. He was not nearly so gracious as far as the Jews were concerned. He wanted to Hellenize all of his people to create a single, hegemonic empire.

There were now two sets of powerful forces working against the Jews.

Greek culture was very alluring to many Jews. Greek philosophy, art, architecture and culture were very seductive to the Jewish people. Many of them began to adopt Greek modes of dress, speech and manner. They also became enamored of the Greek notions of physical beauty and health, to the point where some actually tried to reverse their circumcisions so they would be admitted to Greek health clubs. Just as has happened in the United States during the last hundred or more years, Jewish people became assimilated.

In addition, Antiochus really placed enormous pressure on the Jews to abandon Judaism.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes Outlaws Judaism

Meanwhile, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was exerting extraordinary pressure on the Jews to abandon their faith: He outlawed all observances of Judaism, circumcision and reading and studying Torah and implemented horrific punishments for anyone who disobeyed his edicts. If soldiers found a circumcised newborn child, they publicly executed both the baby and the mother.

He required all citizens to worship the Greek Gods and to eat pork – something to this day forbidden to Jews. Those who refused were tortured and killed.

Hannah and Her Seven Sons

An interesting story is told of Hannah and her sevens sons. The King ordered that they be brought before him. He asked Hannah and her children to worship an idol and eat the meat of a pig. Each refused, and each was tortured and put to death in front of the remaining family members. One by one the enraged Antiochus slaughtered all of Hannah’s sons. As the last one lay dying, Hannah, praying to G-d that she be considered worthy in the afterlife, killed herself.

The King built idols to the Greek Gods in the Temple and then sent his officers to have sex with prostitutes in the sanctuary, which he then further defiled by slaughtering a pig there.

The Maccabeean Revolt

It was only a matter of time until the Jews rose up and started a revolution. In 166 BCE, they finally did, in the person of Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee.

Judea itself was, and still is, rough territory, with deserts and rocky elevations as high as 1,000 meters. As the Kings armies extended their terror tactics to areas outside of Jerusalem, devout Jews who defied the King’s orders fled to the only place they could be even a little safe – the mountains.

When soldiers arrived in Modiin, a small Jewish village west of Jerusalem, they encountered a priest named Mattathias the Hasmonean, and his five sons. The soldiers built an altar in the town marketplace and demanded that Mattathias, as the town's religious leader, sacrifice an animal to the Greek Gods. He refused. When another of the villagers agreed to do it in hopes that this would appease the invaders, Mattathias grabbed a sword and killed him. He and his five sons attacked, killed, or drove away all the invading soldiers and started what would become known as the Maccabeean revolt.

Mattathias and His Army of Jews

Mattathias and his sons hid in the hills of Judea. Together with others that dared to defy Antiochus, he created an army of Jews who refused to give in to Antiochus. They had all fled and left behind all their possessions, vowing to die in battle rather than allow Antiochus to continue. They formed legions of soldiers and used guerrilla warfare techniques to attack Antiochus' forces.

Mattathias, who was already an old man when he started the war, died in 166 BCE, less than a year after he started the war. His middle son, Judah, took over, and proved to be a masterful tactician and leader. He continued to wage war against the Syrian armies, defeating ever-more powerful attacks against the Jews.

The Origin of the Word, “Maccabee”

Judah acquired the name “Ha Maccabee.” There are two schools of thought about the meaning of the word “Maccabee.” One maintains that it is derived from the Aramaic word 'maqqaba', which means hammer. The other school of thought holds that it comes from the first letters of the Old Testament passage Exodus 15:11 “Mi kamokha ba'elim YHVH” (Who is like unto thee, O Lord), the first letters of which are MKBE or Maccabee.

The Miracle of Light

Over the next three years, Judah consolidated his forces and fought a series of battles against increasingly large Syrian forces. Eventually, Judah drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem and in 164 BCE, they reclaimed the city and the Temple for the Jewish people!

It is during the course of the cleansing of the Temple, after the abominations of Antiochus, that the miracle leading to Hanukkah came to pass. Inside the Temple was a lamp called the Eternal Light (Nehr Tameed). The Jews are supposed to keep it burning all the time. But Antiochus had destroyed or defiled all the oil in the Temple except for one vial, which still had the seal of the High Priest. The problem was that the bottle held only enough oil to last one day, and the Jews needed eight days to create new oil for the lamp.

So the Jews lit the lamp and the oil, and through a miracle of G-d, it lasted eight days until new oil could be made.

Celebrating Hanukkah!

And so it was declared that a holiday shall be celebrated, and the Holiday shall last for eight days, and it shall be marked by the lighting of candles, the chanting and singing of prayers, and joyous songs.

Today, more than 2,000 years after these historic events took place, Jews the world over still recall and give thanks to G-d for his strength in our time of need.

Photo by Yanec

Photo by Silfverduk

Photo by Blahmni National Menorah - Washington, DC

Photo by Yanec

Photo by Marcel Masferrer Pascual

Photo by Mhalon

Photo by Steveslep Gold Menorah

Photo by DrGBB Taken on "Bible Land Tour"

Photo by Laszlo Buday Original copper sculpture in Palm Beach, FL

Photo by foundphotoslj

Photo by Rick

Photo by Antmoose Arch of Titus Relief. In this part of Titus' triumphal procession, the treasures of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem are being displayed to the Roman people.

Photo by A.M. Kuchling Arch of Titus. View of the reliefs on the inside of the arch. Note the menorah visible in the lowest relief; this arch was built to commemorate Titus's conquest of Judea in 70AD, and the menorah was taken from the Jewish Temple as part of the spoils.

Photo by Jurek D Cracow: Jewish Culture Festival

Photo by foundphotoslj

Photo by IloveMyPiccolo

Photo by hoyasmeg Sharon's House in Muslim Quarter

Photo by Hoyasmeg Menorah on column

Photo by BarryGeo Tbilisi synagogue, Photo project “Georgian Jews”

Photo by Hoyasmeg