Around the 4th. Century b.c.e., Alexander the Great with his Greek armies conquered the near east including what is now called Israel. After his death, his empire split apart. The land of Israel came under the control of the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled in the region of Syria. In the year 167 b.c.e., King Antiochus Epiphanes decided to force all the people under his rule to Hellenize (to become like the Greeks). The practice of Jewish rituals such as the Sabbath and circumcision was outlawed. The worship of Greek gods and sacrifice of pigs replaced the traditional worship in the Temple. Some Jews eagerly flocked to the gymnasium, the symbol of the Greek emphasis on the beauty and strength of the body. Others resisted Hellenism and died as martyrs.
One day the Greeks came to the village of Modi’in and set up an altar. They commanded the Jews to bring a pig as a sacrifice to show obedience to Antiochus. Mattathias, an old priest, was so enraged when he saw a Jew about to kill the pig on the altar, that he killed him. He and his five sons then fought the Greek detachment, retreated to the mountains, and began a guerrilla war against the Greeks and their Jewish allies. Before he died of old age, Mattathias passed on the leadership of the clan to his son, Judah the Maccabee. Judah led his forces against a series of armies sent by Antiochus; and through superior strategy and bravery he defeated them all. Finally, he and his followers liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the temple from its defilement by the Greeks. They could find only one small curse of oil, enough to last one day. But when they lit the temple Menorah (the oil lamp) with it, a miracle occurred. The Menorah burned for eight days.
So, we celebrate Hanukkah to remember the Maccabees and their successful fight for justice and to remember the miracle of light.
There are two very special themes and symbols that pertain to Hanukkah. They are the number eight and the theme of light. In chapter 10:22 of the Gospel of John, Jesus went into the Temple to teach. The Gospel tells us it was the Feast of Dedication or Hanukkah.
The major ritual associated with Hanukkah is the lighting of the Menorah—the purpose of which is to make known the miracle of the light. Originally the Menorah was lit outside near the doorstep so that all passers-by could see it. It is still customary to place the Menorah in the window so that passers-by can see the lights (this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!) Jesus taught in Matthew, chapter 5: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven.”
A note about Menorahs: usually eight candles or oil holders are placed on one level, with the “shammus” (servant) being the singled-out one that is used to light the other lights. Wow, that speaks volumes of Jesus, doesn’t it? After all, it was Jesus who came as a servant to relight the light in mankind. Menorahs are also called Hanukiahs in Israel and on the Israeli ones it says: a miracle happened here. On the U.S. ones, the ones with this saying actually read “a miracle happened there.”
Traditionally, the shammus is lit and then before the other candles are lit, the following prayers are said:
“Praise are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified our lives through his commandments, commanding us to kindle the Hanukkah lights. Praised are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors, in those days, at this season.”
On the first night an added prayer is said: “Praised are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and helping us to reach this moment.” Then the shamus is used to light the other candles. The candles are lit from right to left.
These lights are sacred for all eight days of Hanukkah. It is forbidden to make use of them, except to look at them in order to praise God for his miracles, wonders, and triumphs.
There are two customs associated with Hanukkah: the giving of gelt (money) to children and the playing of the game dreidle. The “gelt” is usually in the form of chocolate coins. Dreidle is a top that is spun and on each of the four sides is the Hebrew letters: nun, gimel, heh, and shin. This forms an acronym for the phrase “neis gadol hayah sham—or “a great miracle happened there.” And, once again, in Israel the letter shin is replaced with a peh for the poh—so that it reads: “a great miracle happened here.” Another interesting fact is that each of these letters (nun, gimel, hey and shin) has a numerical equivalent that adds up to 358, the same number as the letters of the word “messiah.” It is the Messiah who is the author of miracles!
Secondly, it is customary to eat foods fried in oil, to remind us of the miracle of the oil. So we eat latkes—potato pancakes. Here is a popular recipe: 3 large potatoes, 1 small onion, 2 beaten eggs, ½ cup of vegetable oil and salt and pepper to taste. These are then usually eaten with applesauce or with sour cream.
During the eight days and nights of light, the Maccabees cleaned, purified and rededicated the Temple. In the Torah (the first five books of Moses), dedications take place on the eight day—remember the first-born animals are consecrated to God on the eighth day. Hebrew boys are circumcised on the eighth day. And, even today, before a sanctuary can be rededicated, it must undergo a seven-day period of purification. Thus, the word ‘Hanukkah’ means rededication and also the number 8 signifies the same in Hebrew tradition.
The last day of Hanukkah has a special significance. It is called “zot Hanukkah” which literally means “this is Hanukkah.” This is the time when the menorah is at its brightest (Psalms tells us that the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn that grows brighter and brighter until the full day). And that is what the fully lit Menorah represents. This number eight carries a special meaning. It is one beyond completion. Seven is completion. When creation was complete, God rested. Seven marks the limits of time and eight is beyond time. Eight signifies the eternal. So the eighth day is the essence of Hanukkah and a reminder of the light that is ever present in this world.
Thus, Hanukkah is the time of dedication and renewal. The old altars that have become impure, are torn down and we rededicate ourselves and our temple to the service of God.
Since Jesus said he was the light of the world (and the Menorah represents God’s gift of light) I would like you to consider the following: light gives of itself freely, filling all available space. It does not seek anything in return; it asks not whether you are friend or foe. It gives of itself and is not thereby diminished. So, if His light is in us, are we not to do the same?