The History of Hanukkah

Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights or the Feast of Rededication, is the eight-day festival that commemorates the rededication of the Jewish Temple after its defilement by Seleucid rulers in the second century BCE. The holiday beings on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which usually falls in the month of December. In 2019, Hanukkah begins on the evening of December 22nd and ends on the evening of December 30th.

The extra-biblical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees record the story of how Hanukkah came to be. The Jews of Judea struggled under the rule of the Greco-Syrian Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. During the reign of Antiochus IV, Hellenistic culture, championed by the Greco-Syrian king, was introduced into Jerusalem by Judean leaders. Civil strife quickly arose between those Judeans who embraced Hellenism and those who resisted assimilation. The civil strife became exacerbated to the point that Antiochus IV feared for his kingdom and stepped in to stop it. In 167 BCE, he intensified his campaign to impose Hellenistic culture (2 Macc. 6:1). At that time Antiochus IV also defiled the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and established the worship of Zeus Olympius (2 Macc. 6:2). Antiochus IV’s ban prohibited Jews from reading Torah and from ritual observances including Shabbat, kashrut, and circumcision, upon the penalty of death.

The Hamoneans, a priest named Mattityahu and his five sons, Yochanan, Simeon, Judah, Eleazar, and Yonatan, led a revolt against Antiochus IV that culminated in the cleansing and rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE. Judah, the eldest son, was the leader of the first phase of the revolt. His exploits earned him the name Judah the Maccabee, the Hammer. Over time, the entire family became known as the Maccabees, hence, the name of the two books that record the historical events.

Due to the defiled status of the Temple, Sukkot could not be celebrated that year at its appointed time in the Hebrew month of Tishrei, early Autumn (Sept./Oct.). So the Hasmoneans decided that Sukkot should be celebrated after the Temple was cleansed and rededicated. The altar was cleansed and the Menorah lit and the Temple was rededicated on 25th of Kislev 164 BCE. Thus the eight-day festival of Hanukkah was established.

There is another tradition in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21b) that attributes eight-day length of the holiday to a small bottle of oil found while cleansing the Temple. This late tradition recounts how while cleansing the Temple, the Hasmoneans found one small sealed bottle of oil for the Menorah that had not been defiled. That small amount of oil, which was enough for one day, miraculously burned in the Menorah for eight-days, the amount of time necessary to process new pure oil. The tradition of lighting Hanukkah candles and eating fried foods such as suffganiot (jelly donuts) and latkes (type of potato pancake) stem from this Talmudic tradition.

This post was written by MJTI Academic Dean Rabbi Dr. Vered Hillel

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