Tonight begins the first night of Hanukkah. Every year, I get quite a few questions about this holiday. “Is it the Jewish Christmas?” “Do you get presents?” “Do you have a Hanukkah tree?” “This is the holiday where you’re fasting, right?” But probably the most frequent, and important, question I get asked is, “What are you celebrating at Hanukkah?”
The short answer to these questions is, no, Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas, traditionally there are no presents at Hanukkah, there is no Hanukkah tree, and we don’t fast during Hanukkah.
But the answer to what we’re celebrating at Hanukkah requires more explanation.
While Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar (Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Passover are the major holidays) it is still a very significant and meaningful time for all believers. Hanukkah is the season where we celebrate a military victory of the Maccabees over the Romans and a spiritual victory of YHVH’s way of life over assimilation and a loss of faith.
A Hanukkah History
In 200 BC, Antiochus III the Great of Syria defeated the Egyptian Ptolemaic Kingdom and gained the region of Judea (modern day West Bank area) as part of its kingdom. Antiochus III wanted to make peace within his new kingdom so he allowed the Jews to continue worshipping as they pleased and to live according to Torah.
But in 175 BC, after killing his two nephews who were the legitimate successors of the throne, Antiochus IV Epiphanes took the throne. As a side note, Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ original name was Mithradates. This is important as it connects to the pagan origins of Christmas.
After assuming the throne, rumors spread that he had been killed and in his “death” a revolt was taking place in Jerusalem. In response, he stormed Jerusalem, quelled the revolt, and subsequently killed 40,000 Jews and sold another 40,000 into slavery as recorded by the contemporary historian Josephus and the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees.
In order to strengthen his hold over the region, he outlawed Jewish traditions and practices and, instead, ordered the worship of Zeus as the supreme god. He then sent his army to enforce this decree. They defiled YHVH’s Holy Temple by dedicating it to Zeus, bringing obelisks and other abominable objects into the Temple, and pouring the blood of slaughtered pigs in the Temple and the Holy of Holies.
According to Josephus, public worship of YHVH, including sacrifices, was shut down for 3½ years because of Antiochus IV’s proclamation.
After Antiochus Epiphanes’ decree spread, a Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. This rebel group became known as the Maccabees or “hammer” in Hebrew.
The Maccabean revolt began when Antiochus’ army ordered that Mattathias sacrifice a pig on the altar of YHVH. When he refused, a fellow priest stepped forward to sacrifice the pig in hopes the army would then leave them alone. Mattathias, rather than see YHVH’s altar profaned and a priest commit blasphemy, killed the priest and afterwards fled to the wilderness with his sons.
Jewish opinion differs on how long the Maccabean revolt actually lasted. Some believe the revolt lasted 20 years, ending only when the entire Judean region had been reconquered and the Hasmonean Dynasty was established. Most, however, believe the revolt lasted 7 years – starting when the sacrifices were stopped and ending when the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple were reclaimed.
Rededication of the Temple of YHVH
After seven years of living in the wilderness, hiding in caves, and engaging in rebel warfare, the Maccabees emerged victorious. They entered Jerusalem with their hearts full of joy, only to find the Temple of YHVH completely defiled.
Pigs had been slaughtered on the altar of YHVH. Pagan asherah poles, obelisks, and dozens of idols had been placed in the Temple. There was fornication and orgies, worship of hundreds of pagan gods, and many more blasphemes that had taken place. In order to restore the ways of YHVH and Temple workings, the Maccabees began the task of cleansing the Temple.
Part of Temple protocol is that the light from the menorah must burn continually. Thus, lighting the menorah was one of the first actions the Maccabees took. According to Rabbinic tradition, the Maccabees could only find enough oil to keep the menorah burning for one day, but miraculously the oil lasted for eight days and they were able to cleanse and rededicate the Temple.
Rededication of Our Temples
As you can see, Hanukkah is indeed a very significant holiday filled with a rich history and spiritual inspiration. Hanukkah is about searching our own hearts and lives and reexamining any areas we may have gotten off the path of God. It is a time for us to rededicate the temple of our lives to YHVH and return to His purpose for our life. In a world that is trying to erase Judeo-Christian values and redefine what is right and wrong, we need to be like the Maccabees who defended what they knew to be right, no matter the sacrifice.
This Hanukkah, as we light the candles and reflect on our own lives, I pray God would give each of us the courage to stand strong in the face of adversity and would reveal how we too can be a light to the world.
Chag Urim Sameach! Happy Festival of Lights!