Just like every other religion, Judaism too has its own high holidays, rituals, and ceremonies.
These are used to among other things commemorate certain hallmarks, bring the worshipers together, and play some symbolic values.
One of these is Hanukkah. Also called “The Festival of Lights” or “The Feast of Dedication,” this is a high holiday that is celebrated by observant Jews in late December each year.
Our discussions hereunder endeavor to shed more light on it.
Character and Historical Background
For a start, this holiday basically commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Jewish Temple.
The re-dedication proper happened on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, 165 BC. It lasts eight days and entails the use of the menorah (lampstand).
The desecration of the Second Temple commenced in 171 BC. At this time, a Syrian King called Antiochus Epiphanes decided to impose the Greek culture and belief system on the Jews.
To do this, he issued an edict against male circumcision, installed a vassal High Priest, and even offered a pig as a sacrifice to Zeus in the temple’s ‘Holy of Holies.’
Many observant Jews saw this as a flagrant infraction of their own rights and character.
To counter this, they decided to rebel against the evil Syrian king.
These Jews were led by one Judas Maccabeus. Though ill-equipped and outnumbered by their opponents, they managed to emerge victoriously.
After their unexpected victory, they embarked on the task of rededicating their temple.
This basically entailed eliminating all foreign idols from the temple and rekindling the lights of the Golden Lampstand.
Legend has it that the lampstand lit for 8 days without oil; hence the reason why the festival lasts the same duration.
Below is the breakdown of the times when major events leading to the re-dedication actually took place:
- 198 B.C.: The armies of King Antiochus III vanquish that of Ptolemy V from what we now call Israel and Palestine.
- 175 B.C.: King Antiochus IV (Epiphanes the illustrious) ascends the Syrian throne.
- 168 B.C.: Under his reign, the Second Temple is ransacked, looted and the Jews massacred. This is because he outlaws Judaism and the associated rituals.
- 167 B.C.: He further orders that an altar in honor of his Greek god, Zeus, be put up in the temple. This does not go down well with some staunch Jews.
- Led by the High Priest Mattathias and his five sons, they stage a rebellion against the king. Mattathias’ son, Judah, is renamed Yehuda Maccabi (Judah the Hammer).
- 166 B.C.: Mattathias does unexpectedly. His son Judas Maccabeus takes over as the de facto leader. His ascension to the throne users in the Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom which lasts till 63 B.C.
- 165 B.C.: Jews revolt against King Antiochus IV and successfully retakes the temple. They then re-dedicate it to their God and ‘celebrates’ the first Hanukkah.
Rituals and Customs (METHODOLOGY)
Like any other feast, a number of things have to be done. The Hanukkah is largely family-based.
This means it is celebrated within the family unit, rather than at a temple or out in the open like other festivals do take place.
Unlike many other Jewish festivals, this one does not require that the participants refrain from their normal duties.
As such, the participants are free to attend to their daily chores and retreat to the home at night.
The festival kicks off at dusk. The members of the family gather around a table and light a candle.
While here, they take meals like fried foods and jelly doughnuts. Most families opt to also exchange gifts like games or books.
Many families exchange gifts each night, such as books or games, and “Hanukkah Gelt” is often given to children.
Fried foods (such as latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot). This is followed by singing the major Hanukkah hymns.
Though not a must, several families also recite some scriptures like Psalm 91, Psalm 67, and Psalm 30.
Additionally, a number of Jewish families also encourage their children to give out tzedakah (charity) to rescue centers, orphanages, and other humanitarian agencies.
The Significance of Hanukkah
As noted, the festival entails the use of many symbols.
We have devoted this last segment to look into those symbols and their meanings.
a.) The Significance of the Menorah
Menorah is a Jewish lampstand. It contains 9 candle holders.
Candles are attached to these candle holders which are then lit once a day for the 8 consecutive days in which the festival is celebrated.
The ninth candle, the Shamash, is however lit daily.
The reason for lighting these candles is to recognize and acknowledge the miracle of the oil in the temple.
Remember, during the rededication of the temple, light in the Menorah miraculously lit without any supply of oil for 8 days.
b.) The Significance of the Food
As noted above, some special kinds of foods are eaten throughout the festive seasons. These are the latkes, fritters, and doughnuts.
These foods are all fried using olive oil as a sign of the ‘Miracle of the Oil.’
Dairy products are also used extensively. The purpose of this is to honor Judith, the heroine.
She is the one who purportedly rescued the city of Bethulia from the Assyrians. During her rescue mission, she purportedly fed the generals plenty of salted fish.
c.) The Significance of the Name “Hanukkah”
Lastly comes the name “Hanukkah.” This is the Aramaic and Hebrew word for ‘dedication.’
It is used to describe what the observant Jews had to go through to redeem the temple after it was desecrated.
Each time the term is mentioned, those who identify with it will straight away acknowledge its significance and the role it played in saving Judaism from extinction.
Learn More With the Help of Video
Main Points About Hanukkah
- Hanukkah and Christmas are both widely observed celebration holidays that fall in December.
- Christmas is the most significant Christian observance of the year. It comes with a lot of preparations and festivities. And in many countries, it is considered a national holiday.
- Hanukkah used to be considered a minor Jewish holiday. Not until recently did it become a big thing.
- Unlike Christmas that falls on the 25th of every December, Hanukkah falls on a different day each year.
- Hanukkah is an eight-day long holiday while Christmas is a one-day holiday. While Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ, Hanukkah commemorates the Jews revolt against the Greek King.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Hanukkah
Now that you know what the holiday entails in its entirety, is it too much to ask of you to prepare appropriately for it?
Just so you know: the 2019 version of the festival will kick off in the evening of Sunday, 22 December and come to an end on the evening of Monday, 30 December.
Have you found our insight really eye-opening? All the best also as you contemplate taking the first major step!
Word Cloud for Hanukkah
The following is a collection of the most used terms in this article on Hanukkah. This should help in recalling related terms as used in this article at a later stage for you.