- Summary: an eight-day Jewish festival that celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple
- 2018 Date: 2nd – 10th December (sunset to sunset)
- Celebrated by: Jews, the State of Israel
- Linked Holidays: Purim, Diwali.
Background and Theological Significance
Hanukkah (in Hebrew, חֲנוּכָּה, literally meaning ‘dedication’, also translated as Chanukah) is a Jewish festival celebrating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Second Temple was constructed in the year 516 BCE to replace the First Temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Judea was later conquered by the Seleucid Empire of Syria in the second-century BCE. Under King Antiochus IV Epiphanes the Temple was looted and worship halted as part of an attempt to Hellenise the Jewish people. As a result, the Maccabean Revolt arose against the Seleucids and successfully reclaimed the Temple in about 165 BCE. According to tradition, when the Temple was cleansed and rededicated there was only enough consecrated oil for the menorah to burn for a single night, but miraculously the oil burned for eight nights until a new supply of consecrated oil could be prepared. This occurrence is commemorated annually in the festival of Hanukkah, which is also known as the ‘Festival of Lights’ due to the miracle of the oil remaining alight. Jews commemorate Hanukkah by lighting a special nine-branched menorah over the course of the holiday.
Hanukkah is one of the most prominent and popular Jewish festivals throughout the year, and serves as a time to celebrate Jewish ideals and communities. It is often seen in the Northern Hemisphere as a winter festival alongside Christmas for Christians, the December Solstice for pagans and Yalda for Zoroastrians. It can also be compared to Diwali, the Festival of Lights in the Dharmic theological tradition, which shares a common focus on light as a symbol of faith.
The story of Hanukkah is not present in the Torah but it appears in several ancient sources, including the apocryphal books First and Second Maccabees. It is described in depth in both the Talmud and the Mishnah (the central writings of Rabbinic Judaism), including the rededication of the Temple and the miracle of the oil. The festival is also mentioned in the writings of the famous historian Josephus, as well as in the Christian New Testament when Jesus is described as visiting the Temple during the Feast of the Dedication (John 10: 22-23). Many historians believe that the events of Hanukkah were actually a result of internal strife between traditionalist and Hellenising Jews rather than because of an anti-Jewish stance by the Seleucid rulers. Nonetheless, Hanukkah has been observed for centuries as a celebration of Jewish faith and trust in G-d.
Hanukkah commences on the 25th Day of Kislev, which is the ninth month of the Hebrew liturgical calendar, and concludes eight days later on the 2nd or 3rd Day of the tenth month Tevet (Kislev can have either 29 or 30 days depending on the year). The Hebrew calendar is composed of twelve lunar months that are supplemented every few years by an intercalary month in order to align the calendar with the solar cycle. This means that the dates of Hanukkah in the Gregorian calculation change annually and can fall anywhere between late November and late December depending on the year.
Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is a season of celebration and joy in Jewish communities. The most prominent custom of Hanukkah is the lighting of a nine-branched menorah (candelabra) over the successive nights of the festival. This is inspired by the seven-branched menorah that originally stood in the Temple in Jerusalem and which is thought to have burned miraculously for eight days and nights in the Hanukkah story. It is forbidden by Jewish law to use such a menorah outside of the Temple, so it became customary to use a nine-branched Hanukkah menorah (or ‘hanukkiah’) in order to observe the festival. The central raised candle of the hanukkiah is called the ‘shamash’ (Hebrew for ‘attendant’), and the flame from this candle is used to light the other eight candles. The eight lower candles represent the eight nights of the festival, and a new candle is lit from the shamash each night so that by the end of Hanukkah all of the candles will be aflame. The hanukkiah is typically placed on public display in a doorway or window of a Jewish home, as well as being displayed in synagogues or other public buildings.
Other liturgical traditions associated with Hanukkah include reciting special blessings over the lit candles, singing a hymn called Ma’oz Tzur and including seasonal additions to daily prayers. It is also customary to eat foods that have been cooked in oil, such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jam doughnuts), in remembrance of the miracle of the oil. Many families will also play a game with a four-sided spinning top called a ‘dreidel’, and it is also common to give children ‘gelt’ (gifts of money). Hanukkah is a time of celebration for Jewish communities and they will mark the festival with good food and fellowship as well as worship. In the Northern Hemisphere it is often perceived as a winter festival, a common feature in many religious traditions due to providing joy and hope in the darkest and coldest time of the year. Hanukkah is a time for Jews to celebrate the history of their faith and to celebrate as a united Jewish community.