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The History of Hanukkah

Updated: Mar 31

Understanding the Festival of Lights

Hanukkah, Dreidel, Donuts, Menorah, Festival of Lights

Have you ever just felt empty?  Some seasons are characterized by laughter and abounding joy. Things at work seem to click, your family enjoys being around each other and you walk through your days with confidence.  We love those days, don't we? It's what every Hollywood happy ending is made of. 

But what about the other days, the ones we hide in our heart's closet and pretend they aren’t there?  

You see your kids' needs, but you are unable to meet them.

Rather than producing anything at work, you feel as though you’re just bashing stones against each other.

And in a time of year that ought to be characterized by thankfulness and anticipation, you can't fight the overwhelming desire to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over your head. 

It's in this place that the Hanukkah celebration stops becoming just a Hebrew festival involving latkes, dreidel and doughnuts and instead becomes something deeply meaningful and relevant to our lives today, especially on those days when we don't want to go on. 

The History of Hanukkah

The story of Hanukkah, or the festival of lights, is a Jewish holiday that celebrates a great Jewish military victory in 400 B.C. It centers around the rededication of the second temple in Jerusalem and the miracle of the oil. Unlike Christmas stories which are filled with hope, generosity and those warm-fuzzy feelings, the story of Hanukkah (sometimes called Chanukah) is a story of warfare and overcoming great odds. 

The story of Hanukkah dates back to the second century BCE when Judea was ruled by the Syrian-Greek empire. The Syrian-Greeks were a powerful force that sought to impose their culture and beliefs on the Jewish people. They desecrated the Second Temple in Jerusalem and banned the practice of Judaism.

The Jewish people, led by a group of rebels known as the Maccabees, launched a revolt against the Syrian-Greek empire. Despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the Maccabees were able to recapture the Second Temple and rededicate it to the Jewish faith.

According to tradition, the Maccabees only had enough oil to light the menorah in the Second Temple for one day. However, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days, allowing the Jews to celebrate the rededication of the Temple for eight days and nights. This miracle is celebrated every year during Hanukkah, and is represented by the lighting of the menorah.

The Hanukkah Story

The story began in the 400 years between the writing of the Old and New Testaments. Even though we don't have any formal writings, God was not silent in those years.  Wars were being waged. Battles, won. And Greek ruler Alexander the Great had just died of typhoid fever in his tent at the young age of 32. When asked who should replace him, Alexander replied, "The greatest." Thus, his kingdom was split between his four best generals—Cassander, Ptolemy, Seleucus and Antigonus. 

Our story picks up in the Seleucid empire. After a string of assassinations, Antiochus IV Epiphanes claimed the throne and took control of the Syrian empire. With great zeal and a hunger for power, Antiochus gathered his troops and invaded Egypt, only to face a humiliating defeat. So, during his shameful journey back home, he settled with the next best thing and invaded Israel.  

Antiochus worshiped Greek gods and demanded everyone in his kingdom do the same. The holy temple in Jerusalem where Jewish people would go to worship Yahweh became a place to sacrifice pigs to Zeus Olympios.

Anyone caught worshipping Yahweh was punished and even put to death.

This became a defining moment for the Jews in the city of Jerusalem. 

They could either meet the opposition with feelings of defeat, or they could rally and fight to take back what was once theirs. 

A priest named Mattathias took the latter approach. 

The Maccabean Revolt

Mattathias felt so strongly that the Jewish people ought to stay faithful to God that when he saw a Jewish priest coming to worship a false god, Mattathias killed both the man and a nearby soldier.

His bold move kickstarted the Maccabean revolt.

More and more people joined Mattathias in the hills, and soon they had a small army called the Maccabees.

The Maccabees fought the Syrian empire for four long years. When Mattathias died, his son Judah Maccabee led the army.

Finally, on the 25th of Kislev in 164 BCE, the Maccabees tasted victory; the rededication of the temple could commence.

The Oil in the Temple

Miracle of the Oil Jewish tradition says that when the temple was being reconsecrated to God, there was only enough to light the candelabrum for a single day. While that might not sound like much of a problem, lighting candles in the temple was a big deal.

Temple menorahs were to stay lit at all times, and it would take 8 days to prepare new oil.  Miraculously, the candles stayed lit the entire eight days until the new oil was ready. We celebrate this miracle with the eight-day festival known as Hanukkah.

The Theme of Hanukkah

Yahweh reveals his kingdom through stories! Stories change lives; stories challenge; stories inspire. Stories are an important part of every culture. They capture the deepest parts of our hearts as we connect with the characters.

We hold our breath as the protagonist Christian journeys to Heaven in Pilgrim’s Progress. We cheer when King George slays the dragon in the classic fairytale, and we cry in relief with Frodo and Sam when they finally destroy the ring and return to their home in the Shire. And in the Hanukkah story, we rejoice when the Maccabees overcome great odds.  

Narratives are the powerful medium God chooses to reveal his Word in the Bible, and it is through the stories of God’s miracles in these historical accounts that our lives are forever impacted. Hanukkah is one of those stories where we see God reveal himself through incredible miracles as he saves his people from annihilation.

As We Begin Hanukkah, Ask Yourself,

  1. Where is God calling inviting me to rededication?  Hanukkah was a defining moment in the life and history of God’s people. A small band of Jewish rebels called the Maccabees changed the course of an entire nation because they decided Yahweh was more important than anything else.  In this season, God extends to us the same invitation of rededication. 

  2. How is God calling me to obey?   Our lives are filled with choices. While we may not be asked to sacrifice pigs to a Greek god, we are all invited to choose between serving Yahweh or serving idols of our day. Idols today may look like power, nice things, entertainment, money, or popularity. This isn’t a season to sit quietly in meditation by yourself with a journal, although that is a good practice to have throughout the year. As you get clear about how to rededicate your life, listen for the practical places God is inviting you into obedience and TAKE ACTION!

  3. What story has your life told so far? It’s time to get honest about the story of your life. Where have you tasted victory? Where have you tasted defeat?  What themes are present in your story? Question to ask: What story do you want your life to tell by the time it’s over? Regardless of how you feel about your current life’s story, there is hope of restoration, transformation and uncanny provision. So thinking ahead, what do you want your life to tell by the time it’s over? Remember, the story of Hanukkah reminds us that God is a good protector and provider, so don’t be afraid to dream big! 

Hanukkah Traditions 

Hanukkah is a joyous holiday that is celebrated by people all around the world. Some of the most popular Hanukkah traditions include:

  • Lighting the menorah: The menorah is a nine-branched candelabrum that is lit during Hanukkah. One candle is lit on the first night, and an additional candle is lit on each subsequent night until all eight candles are lit.

  • Eating traditional foods: Hanukkah is a time to indulge in traditional Jewish foods such as latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts), and gelt (chocolate coins).

  • Playing dreidel: The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top that is used in a traditional Hanukkah game. Players bet on which side the dreidel will land on, and the winner takes the pot.

  • Giving gifts: Hanukkah is a time to exchange gifts with friends and family. While gift-giving is not traditionally part of the holiday, it has become more popular in recent years.Join us for eight days of learning about important elements of this Jewish festival. such as latkes, dreidels, gelt, menorahs and sufganiyot. Each night of Hanukkah, we'll cover one important theme with some practical ways to engage with the holiday.

Ways You Can Celebrate Hanukkah With Us! 

  1. Check out our playlist of Hanukkah videos online.

  2. Help your kids engage in Hanukkah with a Hanukkah video and booklet.

  3. Check out our website for more Hanukkah resources, recipes and games.

  4. Try our Hanukkah playlists for fun Hanukkah songs and Klezmer-style songs while you make donuts in the kitchen.


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