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Holy Days


What does Chanukah mean?

The word "Chanukah" means "dedication". The holiday celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple in 165 B.C.E., after the Maccabee family and their followers recaptured the Temple Mount from the Syrians.

How is Chanukah spelled?

Unfortunately for internet search engines, there is no standard English spelling. People commonly use start the word with either Ch or H (as with all Hebrew "ch" noises, this is the sound heard in "Bach", not "chair"), and people may or may not double the n, k, or both.

What is the history this holiday celebrates?

In the year 174 B.C.E., Antiochus IV became ruler of Syria. He was a harsh tyrant and contemptuous of religion. He gave himself the title "Epiphanes" ("beloved of the gods"), but a contemporary historian, Polebius, wrote that "Epimanes" ("madman") was more accurate.

Until this time, the land of Israel had not been harshly treated by the Syrians. The previous Syrian ruler, Seleucus, normally treated the Jews with favor and granted them privileges. This made many Jews eager to be accepting of Syrian society. Modern historians call people participating in Syrian culture "Hellenized" because of the Greek roots of this culture, such as gymnasium use and idolatry.

So our story starts with the Jewish people in trouble for two reasons: the new ruler of Syria hated them because they were religiously devout, and their community identity (including their covenant relationship with God) was threatened by widespread Jewish Hellenization.

Antiochus prohibited specifically Jewish laws, and replaced Yochanan the High Priest with Yochanan's Hellenist brother. Later another replacement High Priest was instituted: a man named Menelaus who told Antiochus he could bring in more money to the Temple, and would give it to Syria. Yochanan protested the corruption of the priesthood, and Menelaus had him murdered. This assassination, and a false rumor that Antiochus had died prompted a Jewish revolt against Menelaus.

But Antiochus had not died, and responded to the revolt by ordering his army to kill thousands of Jews. He then outlawed all Jewish worship and customs, and ordered all Torah scrolls to be burnt. Many Jewish people died as martyrs rather than abide by these new decrees.

Eventually Antiochus even sent men from town to town, forcing the Jews to worship idols. Those who refused were killed. This happened in the village of Modin, where an old priest named Mattiyahu lived. Mattiyahu became enraged at another Jew who was about to comply with offering a sacrifice to an idol, killed that Jew, and then fled into the mountains before Antiochus's men could catch him. In the mountains, Mattiyahu was joined by his family and many friends.

The sons of Mattiyahu were called the Maccabees. They began a revolt against Syria that eventually succeeded.

The recapture of the Temple Mount and re-dedication of the Temple actually happened twenty-seven years before their revolt against Syria was finished. That year the Jewish people had been recently unable to celebrate Sukkot, so they turned the Temple purification and re-dedication into an eight-day holiday to thank God for helping them and to do the best they could at celebrating a late Sukkot.

What is the history this holiday has suffered?

Chanukah has been changed through the years, because although its story is simple the historical implications are more complex.

The Maccabees did not only fight the Syrian army: they also spent a lot of time killing Hellenized Jews. And after winning their revolt, they set up the Hasmonaean dynasty to rule Israel that began troubled (contrary to scripture, it combined the roles of King and High Priest) and ended with incredible corruption. So the Maccabees cannot simply be admired as heroes. They are not great role models.

Also, the story of Chanukah describes how a small number of Jews can, with God's help, defeat the mightiest army of their time. At certain times that has been a welcome and inspiring message, such as to the first-century Zealots. But the rabbis realized that most often, in the Diaspora, a holiday with such a theme would make the Jewish people unpopular with their neighbors. So the Gemara, in Shabbat 21b, includes an extra bit of story not in the Books of the Maccabees or the writings of historians: the miracle of the oil. According to the Talmud, when the Maccabees re-dedicated the Temple, they only could find enough ritual oil to last for one day. But a miracle happened, and the oil lasted eight days, until more oil could be made and ceremonially prepared. This legend helped the holiday not stir up trouble, since the miracle shifted in focus from a military victory to a more benign symbol that was still about how God was with his people.

In modern times, the holiday's focus has continued to shift. The early Zionists were fond of its military side, even though they were fighting swampland mosquitoes and barely arable land instead of a human army. Then, after the Holocaust, many Jewish people became very anti-military, so the focus returned to the legend of the oil.

The legend about the oil is why a chanukiah (a candelabra with eight arms and a ninth, central lamp) evolved as a Chanukah symbol, from the Temple's menorah (a candelabra with six arms and a seventh, central lamp)

Wait, doesn't a menorah have nine branches?

Technically, that's a chanukiah. But, you are right, especially in America where sloppy speech is common, many people will call it a menorah.

What did Yeshua do on this holiday?

Yeshua did two things on Chanukah.

The most clear thing he did was to act out the Chanukah story as a metaphor with a spiritual message. In John 10-11 we read that at about the time of Chanukah he was in Jerusalem, at the Temple, having just taught about "my sheep know my voice". But those in authority reject his truth, so he flees and goes into the hills beyond the Jordan, where many friends and family rally to him. Then he hears that something that had been dedicated to God (Lazarus) has been taken from them. He leads his people into danger, back to the land where the authorities rule, to reclaim this thing. Like the Maccabees, he and his people talk about Resurrection on the Last Day, and being secure in knowing they will forever life with God. His foray is successful in regaining what had been taken (Lazarus is brought back to life), but that is not the end of his struggle with the authorities.

This metaphor is not very detailed. Lazarus is not similar to the Temple, and Yeshua did not do any violent fighting. But consider how dedicated to God a brought-back-to-lift Lazarus must have felt. And consider that, like the rededicated Temple, he became targeted by the opposing authorities who understood his symbolic power for the "rebels" (John 12:10-11). When we think of rededicating ourselves to God at Chanukah time, think of Lazarus.

The other thing that happened to Yeshua at Chanukah is much more subtle. We know Yeshua was born on Sukkot. Assuming that his mother, Miryam, had a normal nine-month pregnancy, it means he was conceived at Chanukah time.

The implications of this are meaningful. Yeshua was born on a holiday, Sukkot. Eight days after his birth he was circumcised, again this was a holiday, Hoshanah Rabbah. And 33 days after that he was taken to the Temple for a ritual of cleansing, which we read about at length in Luke 2:22-39 but this did not happen on a holiday, to fulfill it by giving it additional meaning. We would expect this day to be very meaningful, for it was the first time since the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar that the presence of the divine was in the Temple, and the first time ever without the ark.

We might even expect that God would have arranged history so that the Maccabee's rededication of the Temple happened years before on this day. That would have been an appropriate foreshadowing of fixing the Temple. But instead, that event foreshadows Yeshua's conception.

God must have been thrilled to physically be in his Temple again. But even more important to God is how he can dwell in us when we accept Yeshua, and how this makes our bodies Temples (with Miryam being the first, and a somewhat unique, example). Thus the Apostles wrote so often about how the bodies of those who accept Yeshua and are filled with God's Spirit are like the Temple: God dwells within, and from that place holiness can spread.

So years before, when God ordained the day for Chanukah to celebrate fixing the Temple, God chose to make that day foreshadow the unexpected. It was more significant when a teenage girl agreed to have the eternal Light of the World within her body, which led to the events that now allow our bodies to be dedicated as temples for God, than when God returned to his Temple in Jerusalem. God cares more about being in us than in his Temple.What lessons do we learn from Chanukah?

1. God Works with the Imperfect

The ark from the Temple was missing since the time of the Babylonian captivity. For hundreds of years the Jewish people had been use a Temple that was missing the ark and the physical presence of God. Without the ark, the commandments for Yom Kippur could not be kept. Israel could not fully obey Torah.

Yet God did not abandon his people because they could not be perfect. He still aided the Maccabees. He still cause the oil to last eight days. Moreover, God provided this aid even though the people he helped would become the Hasmonaean dynasty, which had such great corruption of what the priesthood should be about.

God will bless those who are as devoted to him as they are able. Our God does not only work with the perfect, but is willing to help us do purification and dedication.

2. The Non-Miraculous Also Counts

The rabbis teach that by a miracle the oil lasted an extra seven days. But Chanukah happens for eight days. The first day in which the oil burned was not miraculous, but is still as celebrated as the other seven days.

God loves what glorifies him, and considers it worthy. It (and we) need not be miraculous.

3. God Protects his Plans

If Syria had succeeded in erasing the Jewish identity through either Hellenization or the decrees of Antiochus IV, then God's prophetic plans would have been ruined. There would have been no Jewish community devoted to God and Torah into which the messiah could be born to live sinlessly as a Jew. There would have been no study of Torah to allow so many Jews to recognize their messiah.

Like other tyrants in history, Antiochus had a plan that, if successful, would end God's plans for the Jewish people. And like those other tyrants, he failed.

4. God Respects Our Hopes

The Tenach mentions an eternal life after death only a few times, such as Daniel 12:2-3. None of the blessings promised in the Sinai/Moav covenant were about eternal life; all those blessings were about a normal yet prosperous life in the Promised Land.

Yet, at some time during or after the Babylonian Exile, the Jewish people became convinced that all virtuous Jews would have eternal life after they die. An early record of this is in Second Maccabees, chapter 7, where seven brothers give speeches as they are martyred. So the hope of enjoying an eternal life with God after death was not something the Jews of the first century invented. That topic, so heatedly discussed by the different first-century Jewish sects, had been part of Jewish thought and religion for hundreds of years.

None of the Tenach's messianic prophecies foretold that the messiah would teach about an eternal life with God after death. Yet this issue that was so prominent and divisive in Yeshua's day that he made it the most notable part of his teaching.

God does not always or promptly correct our errors or clarify our hopes. But the hopes of people devoted to God are important to God.

5. God Respects Our Heroism

The author of Hebrews writes at length about the great faith of our patriarchs and so many other notable Jews (chapter 11). But then he de-emphasizes their value as role models by tells us that instead of dwelling on their worthy accomplishments and exemplary lives we should instead focus on Yeshua (verses 12:1-2). Why? Because the faith and hope of these other heroes of history can fuel our faith, but Yeshua is the "author and perfecter" of our faith. The faith of our forefathers was not as complete as our faith. And these other heroes of history are not now "seated at the right hand of the throne of God" to help us.

Yet Yeshua celebrated Chanukah (John 10:22). Even though he himself would become the ultimate role model and savior, he still celebrated the faith and zeal of the Jews who saved Judaism in a prior generation.

We too should remember the faith of those who lived before us. We can properly admire many role models as long as we keep Yeshua special.

6. God Fills

When we purify ourselves it helps to replace any evil we have removed.

This principle is easy to see when trying to fix bad habits. If you watch television too much, it is hard to watch it less unless you also pick something to do instead. If you eat when upset, it is hard to stop that habit unless you decide a better way to handle being upset.

In the same way, the miracle of the oil teaches that when the Temple was purified and re-dedicated, God filled it with his Spirit. (Light is a well-established symbol of God's Spirit.)

Yeshua taught that this principle also applies to spiritual health:

The unclean spirit, when it has gone out of a person, passes through dry places, seeking rest, and finding none, he says, "I will turn back to my house [person] from which I came out." When he returns, he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes, and takes seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there. The last state of that person becomes worse than the first.

-Luke 11:24-26

A moment earlier (verse 11:13), Yeshua had affirmed that God desires to fill us with his Spirit, and will do so if we are accepting.

The overall lesson is that after we clean up a spiritual problem we should ask God to "fill that space" with his Spirit. God wants to replace our spiritual problems with his Spirit.

Then, like a purified Temple, we will be a place where God dwells, from which holiness can spread.

How do we celebrate Chanukah?

There are no scriptural commands to celebrate Chanukah. It is neither a chag (pilgrimage festival) nor a moad (appointed time). But it is an important part of Jewish culture, which teaches the valuable lessons already described. It is certainly a time to examine and re-dedicate ourselves as "Temples" in which the Spirit of God dwells.

We should pray for the Temple mount to again be a place dedicated to God. It is once again under the control of another government and dedicated to a different religion.

The most visible celebration of Chanukah is the lighting of the chanukiah each night. The chanukiah is then put in a windowsill, so it can be seen by people passing the house.

It is also traditional to remember the miracle of the oil by eating food fried in oil, especially latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly donuts.

The dreidel (a four-sided top) and gelt (coins, or in modern times often chocolate coins) are used for a game to help teach children about Chanukah. According to legend, the dreidel was used to trick enemy soldiers: when a group of Jews studying Torah heard a knock at the door, they quickly hid their scrolls and books and pretended to be gambling.

Because of another holiday also celebrated on the 25th day of a Winter solstice month, it has become traditional to exchange gifts on Chanukah. There is no reason not to do this, especially if it can be done in a manner to help give peace to otherwise envious children (or adults), while not becoming the central theme of the holiday.

There are also traditional Chanukah songs, although these are sadly few in number.

Many synagogues have a Chanukah party with latkes (and applesauce and sour cream), other foods, dreidel playing, dancing, singing, and other festivity.