As the eight-day Jewish holiday Hanukkah approaches, we reflect on the history behind the celebration and the miracle that allows us to remember our faith in God grants us light even in the darkest of times. Let us embrace the spirit of the season through good deeds and love in order to be a light that shines forth for others.
The eight day Jewish holiday that we have come to know as Hanukkah or Chanukah (meaning “dedication” in Hebrew) commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple as a result of the Maccabean Revolt during the second century B.C. in the time of the rule and reign of the Greek-Syrian Empire. Chanukah begins on the 25th of the month of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, usually falling in the month of November or December. This year, the Jewish community worldwide will light the first candle on the eve of December 6, 2015. Often referred to as the Festival of Lights, this holiday is celebrated with the lighting of the chanukiah (an eight-branched candelabrum), traditional foods, storytelling, games and gifts.
Chanukah is not a religious Jewish holiday recorded in the Tanach. It is a celebration and remembrance of a historical account of the Jewish people in the time period between the two testaments. It has been adopted as a symbol for the Jewish people of the national and religious struggle that they experienced both during the time of the Maccabees and even now for the State of Israel. The events that inspired Chanukah are recorded in the books of the First and Second Maccabees and in the religious writings of the Talmud. The story begins during the reign of Alexander the Great who conquered the regions of Syria, Egypt and Judea bringing Hellenistic culture. More than a century later around 200 B.C., Judea—also known as the Land of Israel—came under control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria. Antiochus III allowed the Jews who lived there to continue practicing their religion in peace. Once his son Antiochus IV came to power, however, he began to severely oppress the Jews, outlawing Judaism and ordering them to worship Greek gods. In 168 B.C. Antiochus IV ordered a massacre of the Jewish people in Jerusalem killing thousands and desecrating the Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs on it.
Such defilement caused a massive Jewish revolt against Antiochus IV and the Seleucid monarchy led by the Jewish priest Matthias and his five sons. After Matthias died in 166 B.C., his son Judah took the lead and two years later the forces of the Maccabees succeeded in driving the Syrians out of Jerusalem and establishing an independent Jewish kingdom for more than a century. Judah called his followers to purify and rededicate the Second Temple and to rebuild the altar to God and light the menorah. According to the Talmud, Judah and those who took part in rededicating the Temple witnessed a miracle. Even though there was only enough olive oil in the canister to light the six-branched menorah for one night, miraculously by the hand of God, it remained lit for eight consecutive nights until more oil could be secured. This magnificent event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim an eight-day festival, known today as Chanukah.
Today, instead of the traditional six-branched menorah used in the Temple, a special candelabrum with eight branches is lit to commemorate the miracle of the oil burning for eight days. Each night of Chanukah a new candle is kindled and added to the chanukiah. There is a ninth candle, called the shamash (“helper”) that is used to light the other eight. The Jewish people typically recite blessings and prayers at sundown as they light a new candle and place the chanukiah in a window as a reminder of the miracle that inspired the holiday. It is traditional to eat fried foods, especially favorites like potato pancakes called latkes and jam-filled donuts called sufganyot. Another popular tradition in many Jewish households includes playing with four-sided spinning tops called dreidels. In some homes it is customary to exchange gifts during the eight-day celebration.
For believers in the New Covenant, we know that the gospel of John speaks of the Feast of Dedication (Chanukah) as observed by Yeshua and the Jewish community during the Messiah’s lifetime. John 10:22-23 reveals, “At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Yeshua was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon.” Surrounding this event were thousands of Jews who had come up to Jerusalem also to celebrate the dedication of the Temple. The crowd gathered around Yeshua prodding him as to whether He is the true Messiah, the Son of Man. In great boldness, during the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem at the Temple, when all of the Jewish people have gathered to remember how they overthrew the forces that upheld false gods, Yeshua claims deity by saying, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). In disbelief the crowds picked up stones to kill Him, but before they do Yeshua responds, “…do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent in to the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (:36). Yeshua is sanctified by the Father. Sanctified is the same word used for the temple, the priests, and the anointing oil that was to burn perpetually on the menorah of the Temple (see Exodus 27:20-21) to be holy and set apart for God. Yeshua is sanctified and made holy by the Father, just as God had commanded the Temple to be made holy.
Through Yeshua’s consecration, we are also God’s holy and anointed Temple, the dwelling place of God to be a light to the world as He is the Light of the world (John 9:5). During this Chanukah season, may we also remember the miracle oil that God gave to purify and anoint His Temple, His dwelling place. Through our faith in Yeshua, let us believe that we are sanctified to be a light that shines before others through our love and good deeds to the glory of God the Father in Heaven (Matt. 5:16).
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