CHANUKAH, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. CHANUKAH is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, and may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar.
The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a special candelabrum, the MENORAH or HANUKIAH, one light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. An extra light called a SHAMASH, (Hebrew: "guard" or "servant") is also lit each night, and is given a distinct location, usually higher or lower than the others. The purpose of the extra light is to adhere to the prohibition, specified in the Talmud (Tracate Shabbat 21b-23a), against using the CHANUKAH lights for anything other than publicizing and meditating on the CHANUKAH story. (The SHAMASH is used to light the other lights.)
CHANUKAH is mentioned in the deuterocanonical or apocrypha books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. 1 Maccabees states: "For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. Then Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication ... should be observed ... every year ... for eight days. (1 Mac.4:56-59)"
The martyrdom of Hannah and her seven sons has also been linked to CHANUKAH. According to the Talmudic story and 2 Maccabees, a Jewish woman named Hannah and her seven sons were tortured and executed by Antiochus for refusing to worship an idol, which would have been a violation of Jewish law.
The story of CHANUKAH is alluded to in the book of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees of the Septuagint but CHANUKAH is not specially mentioned; rather, a story similar in character, and obviously older in date, is the one alluded to in 2 Maccabees 1:18 et seq according to which the relighting of the altar fire by Nehemiah was due to a miracle which occurred on the twenty-fifth of KISLEV, and which appears to be given as the reason for the selection of the same date for the rededication of the altar by Judah Maccabeus.
The Books of Maccabees are not part of the TANAKH (Hebrew Bible), but are part of deuterocanonical historical and religious material preserved in the Septuagint. The TANAKH ends with the consequences following the events of PURIM, and had already been codified many centuries earlier by the Men of the Great Assembly (ANSHEI KNESSET HAGEDOLAH).
Another source is the MEGILLAT ANTIOCHUS. This work (also known as "MEGILLAT HAHASMONAIM", or "MEGILLAT CHANUKAH") is in both Aramaic and Hebrew; the Hebrew version is a literal translation from the Aramaic original. Recent scholarship dates it to somewhere between the 2nd and 5th Centuries, probably in the 2nd Century, with the Hebrew dating to the seventh century. It was published for the first time in Mantua in 1557. Saadia Gaon, who translated it into Arabic in the 9th Century, ascribed it to the Maccabees themselves, disputed by some, since it gives dates as so many years before the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE. The Hebrew text with an English translation can be found in the Siddur of Philip Birnbaum.
Around 200 BCE Jews lived as an autonomous people in the Land of Israel, also referred to as Judea, which at that time was controlled by the Seleucid king of Syria. The Jewish people paid taxes to Syria and accepted its legal authority, and they were free to follow their own faith, maintain their own jobs, and engage in trade.
By 175 BCE Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended to the Seleucid throne. At first little changed, but under his reign, the Temple in Jerusalem was looted, Jews were massacred, and Judaism was effectively outlawed. In 167 BCE Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple.
Many modern scholars argue that the king may have been intervening in an internal civil war between the traditionalist Jews in the country and the Hellenized elite Jews in Jerusalem. These competed violently over who would be the High Priest, with traditionalists with Hebrew/Aramaic names like Onias overthrown by Hellenizers with Greek names like Jason and Menelaus. As the conflict escalated, Antiochus took the side of the Hellenizers by prohibiting the religious practices the traditionalists had rallied around. This may explain why the king, in a total departure from Seleucid practice in all other places and times, banned the traditional religion of a whole people.
Antiochus' actions proved to be a major miscalculation as they provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi ("Judah the Hammer"). By 166 BCE Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. The festival of CHANUKAH was instituted by Judah Maccabee and his brothers to celebrate this event. After recovering Jerusalem and the Temple, Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. But there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.
CHANUKAH lamp unearthed near Jerusalem, c. 1900.The version of the story in 1 Maccabees, on the other hand, states that an eight day celebration of songs and sacrifices was proclaimed upon rededication of the altar, and makes no mention of the miracle of the oil. A number of historians believe that the reason for the eight day celebration was that the first CHANUKAH was in effect a belated celebration of the festivals of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. During the war the Jews were not able to celebrate Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret properly; the combined festivals also last eight days, and the Sukkot festivities featured the lighting of lamps in the Temple (Suk.v. 2-4). The historian Josephus mentions the eight-day festival and its customs, but does not tell us the origin of the eight day lighting custom. Given that his audience was Hellenized Romans, perhaps his silence on the origin of the eight-day custom is due to its miraculous nature. In any event, he does report that lights were kindled in the household and the popular name of the festival was, therefore the "Festival of Lights" ("And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights").
It has also been noted that the number eight has special significance in Jewish theology, as representing transcendence and the Jewish People's special role in human history. Seven is the number of days of creation, that is, of completion of the material cosmos, and also of the classical planets. Eight, being one step beyond seven, represents the Infinite. Hence, the Eighth Day of the Assembly festival, mentioned above, is according to Jewish Law a festival for Jews only (unlike Sukkot, when all peoples were welcome in Jerusalem). Similarly, the rite of brit milah (circumcision), which brings a Jewish male into God's Covenant, is performed on the eighth day. Hence, CHANUKAH's eight days (in celebration of monotheistic morality's victory over Hellenistic humanism) have great symbolic importance for practicing Jews.
After the lights are kindled the hymn HANEROT HALALU is recited. There are several differing versions - the version presented here is recited in many Ashkenazic communities:
"We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of CHANUKAH these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except for to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations."
The last day of CHANUKAH is known as ZOT CHANUKAH, from the verse in the Book of Numbers 7:84 "ZOT CHANUKAT HAMIZBE'ACH" - "This was the dedication of the altar", which is read on this day in the synagogue. According to the teachings of Kabbalah and Hasidism, this day is the final "seal" of the High Holiday season of Yom Kippur, and is considered a time to repent out of love for God. In this spirit, many Hasidic Jews wish each other "GMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH", "may you be sealed totally for good", a traditional greeting for the Yom Kippur season. It is taught in Hasidic and Kabbalistic literature that this day is particularly auspicious for the fulfillment of prayers.
The classical rabbis downplayed the military and nationalistic dimensions of CHANUKAH, and some even interpreted the emphasis upon the story of the miracle oil as a diversion away from the struggle with empires that had led to the disastrous downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans. With the advent of Zionism and the state of Israel, these themes were rapidly reconsidered. In modern Israel, CHANUKAH was transformed into a celebration of military strength, a kind of antidote to what was perceived as the idea of the powerless Diaspora Jew that the Zionists felt that the Jews in the State of Israel needed to psychologically overcome.
CHANUKAH has taken a place equal to Passover as a symbol of Jewish identity. Both the Israeli and North American versions of CHANUKAH emphasize resistance, focusing on some combination of national liberation and religious freedom as the defining meaning of the holiday.
There are several songs associated with the festival of CHANUKAH. The most well known in English-speaking countries include "DREIDEL, DREIDEL, DREIDEL" and "CHANUKAH, OH CHANUKAH." In Israel, CHANUKAH has become something of a national holiday. A large number of songs have been written on CHANUKAH themes, perhaps more so than for any other Jewish holiday. Some of the most well known are "HANUKKIAH LI YESH" ("I Have a CHANUKAH Menora"), "KAD KATAN" ("A Small Jug"), "S'VIVON SOV SOV SOV" ("Dreidel, Spin and Spin"), "MI YIMALEL" (Who can Retell") and "NER LI, NER LI" ("I have a Candle").
Potato pancakes, known as LATKES in Yiddish, are traditionally associated with CHANUKAH, especially among Ashkenazi families. There is a custom of eating foods fried or baked in oil (preferably olive oil), as the original miracle of the CHANUKAH menorah involved the discovery of the small flask of oil used by the Jewish High Priest, the Kohen Gadol. This small batch of olive oil was only supposed to last one day, and instead it lasted eight.
Many Sephardic families as well as Polish Ashkenazim and Israel have the custom of eating all kinds of fruit-filled doughnuts (Yiddish: PONTSHKES), (BIMUELOS, or SUFGANIYOT) which are deep-fried in oil, and of course all Kosher foods.
Chanukah 2019 will begin on Sunday evening, December 22
and will end on Monday evening, December 30. What follows is a how-to guide to the basics of Chanukah observance.