The Meaning of Chanukah

A message from your church’s Jewish friend,
Chaplain Barry E. Pitegoff, BCC

The Jewish celebration of Chanukah begins tonight at sundown and continues for eight nights and eight days, ending at sundown on Monday, December 6.  “Isn’t Chanukah early this year?”   The answer is actually “no.” Chanukah is set on the Jewish Calendar and begins at sundown at the start of the 25th day of the month of Kislev every year.  That day overlaps onto the Gregorian Calendar, the January-December calendar, differently every year.  The reason is surprisingly simple.  The Gregorian calendar is Solar, it is based on the earth’s rotation around the sun, which takes about 365 and a quarter days each year.  The Jewish calendar is lunar.  It is based on the moon’s rotation round the earth, which takes about 28 or 29 days.  In the Jewish calendar, a new moon is the start of a new month.

Chanukah is the Hebrew word meaning “rededication.”  When the second temple stood, (the only part remaining is the Western or Wailing Wall), the Greek-Syrians defiled it around the year 164 BCE.  The Greek-Syrians turned the Jewish Temple into a pagan shrine.  Jewish symbols and sacred items were destroyed or removed, pagan idols replaced them.  Obviously, the Jewish people were sad and angry.  All the Jewish people wanted to do was to worship in their Temple in their own way.

The Jewish people were so angry, they wanted their own temple back so much, they actually fought back for it.  The battle took about three years, from about 167 BCE to about 164 BCE, but the Jewish people were successful in their fight to win back the Temple, cleanse it, and re-dedicated it as their center of worship.

The group of Jewish guerrilla-type fighters who kept coming down from the hills to fight the Greek-Syrians were called “The Hammers” in modern day English, or “The Maccabees” in ancient Hebrew.  The leader of the successful Maccabees was Judah the Maccabee.

After their victory came the hard work of cleansing and purifying the Temple and rededicating it to Israel’s G-D.  This event was observed in an eight-day celebration.  At first, the eight-days celebration was related to the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which is an eight-day autumn harvest festival.

However, as the rabbinic tradition developed after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, the eight days of Chanukah because connected to a miracle the Jewish people felt occurred while preparing the Temple for its rededication.  The Temple has a light that must be continuously burning, the “Ner Tamid,” or the Eternal Light.  (Today it is electric, of course.)  The only sacred oil for that lamp found while cleansing and purifying the temple should have only lasted for one day.  Sanctifying new oil would take an entire week.

Somehow, against all odds, but not against prayer, that small amount of oil that was only supposed to last one day, it actually lasted for eight days.  The Jewish people consider that the miracle of Chanukah.  One of the ways it is remembered is by having an eight-branched (plus a “leader branch” or “Shamash” in Hebrew) special candelabra, where a candle is lighted each night at sundown with blessings, so the each night an extra candle is lighted, starting from one candle on the first day to all eight candles on the last night.  The technical name for this candelabra is called a Chanukiya, but it is more often referred to by the general Hebrew name for any candelabra, a Menorah.

Chanukah is a joyous holiday, observed in the homes and at the menorahs, but there is little in the liturgy for it.  There are three blessings recited when lighting the Menorah the first night, then only blessings one and two on each subsequent night.  The third blessing is the prayer of Thanksgiving, expressing thanks to G-D that we were enabled, once again, to make it to this moment.  This thanksgiving prayer is used on many occasions.

The special foods enjoyed during Chanukah are fried, usually latkes (potatoes) or more modern Israeli-sufganiyot (Jelly Donuts) because of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days.  There are also activities to teach and involve the children, such as spinning a dreidel, where the sides spell out the Hebrew for “A great miracle happened there.” There is also usually chocolate covered in foil to look like the coins of that time.  Yummy. 

Chanukah is not in the Jewish Bible because the Rabbis who made the decision as to which books would make it into the Jewish canon decided on a cut-off date of about 200 BCE.  Chanukah occurred after that.  You can read about it in the Books of the Maccabees.

Since Chanukah was the last battle that enabled the Jewish people to continue to worship as they desired, about 164 years later, the birth of Christ is believed to have occurred in the Christian tradition.  As an interfaith outreach, one of my Rabbinic instructors used to say, “If it was not for Chanukah, there might not have been a Christmas.”  True or not, it does help us to continue the interfaith outreach we enjoy so much.

Thank you for inviting this commentary. 

Enjoy the holiday season.