The darkest nights of winter are lit by the warm, soft glow of a candelabra shining from the front window of a Jewish home.
The simple, eight-branched candelabra burns with a stately, subtle grace. A passerby on the street stops to enjoy the brightly lit candles in the window. He sees children playing inside the house; he hears voices singing. The aroma of good things in the kitchen wafts about the home. The passerby remarks to himself as he goes on his way, “Tonight must be one of the nights of Hanukkah.”
The eight-day festival of Hanukkah is celebrated in Jewish homes each year. The eight-branched candelabra (called a chanukkiah or Hanukkah menorah) is lit. Friends and family gather for festive meals of delicious potato pancakes and pastries. There are entertaining games for children, storytelling, songs, and prayers. Most of all, there is gladness, joy, and light.
The Feast of Dedication
The eight-day festival of Hanukkah begins each year on the twenty-fifth day of the biblical month of Kislev. This usually corresponds to late November or December on the secular calendar.
Chanukkah means “dedication.” The Feast of Hanukkah is the Feast of Dedication. The events behind the festival of Hanukkah are found in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees. Therein the story is told of how Judah Maccabee and his heroic band of freedom fighters overthrew the tyrannical Seleucid forces that had subdued Judea and defiled the Jerusalem Temple.
After recapturing Jerusalem, Judah Maccabee and his followers purified and rededicated the Temple. The altar that had been defiled with pagan sacrifices was dismantled and a new one was built. The menorah, the altar for incense, the table of the bread of the presence, and the curtain before the holy of holies were all replaced.
When their work was complete, they established the twenty-fifth day of Kislev as the date for the rededication of the Temple, because that date was the anniversary of the day on which the Temple had been defiled three years before.
To celebrate the restoration of God’s Holy Temple, all Jerusalem rejoiced for eight days. Judah Maccabee declared that future generations should rejoice annually during those eight days to remember the miracles of the Temple’s dedication.
The Hanukkah Story
The events behind Hanukkah occurred during the turbulent years of the disintegration of Alexander the Great’s empire and the rise of the iron-clawed Roman Empire. In those days, the land of Israel found itself buffeted between world powers that sought to use her as a natural land bridge between Africa and Eurasia. The people of Israel were the victims of great political upheavals. War was never far from their land. In the meantime, another war was being waged among the people of Israel. Alexander’s conquests had introduced the world to Greek language, thought, custom, and philosophy.
Greek education had become a universal standard. Western art, science, athletics, literature, and religion had infiltrated the East, and the land of Israel was no exception. Many Jews fell under the sway of Hellenism and embraced the Greek worldview with open arms.
In the year 175 BCE, the Seleucid king, Antiochus the IV, inherited the throne of his empire and had himself declared Epiphanes. He asserted that he was divine. He ordered all of his subjects to erect statues of him in their temples and worship him. In addition, he sought to unify his territorial holdings by imposing a strict Hellenism. The Greek language became mandatory. Greek culture and religion were also imposed upon the people of his kingdom.
Abomination of Desolation
In 169 BCE, Antiochus’ army suffered a humiliating defeat in their Egyptian campaign when Roman intervention put a halt to their advance. Shamed and angry, Antiochus turned his army back north to return through the land of Israel. When news of civil unrest in Jerusalem reached him, he sacked the city indiscriminately and slaughtered many of its citizens. During this siege, he entered the holy Temple and stole the gold and silver, including the incense altar, the table, and the menorah.
Not long after that, Antiochus issued orders that all nations under his power were to immediately relinquish their various religions and cultures and embrace a single monolithic standard of Greek culture and faith. The edicts were specifically aimed at the Jews.
The daily sacrifices were discontinued. The Jerusalem Temple was converted into a Temple to Zeus. On the fifteenth day of the month of Kislev, the Syrian-Greeks erected an image of Zeus in the Temple. Ten days later, they began to sacrifice pigs to the idol upon the altar of the LORD.
Antiochus also introduced laws forbidding circumcision, Sabbath observance, kosher diets, and the study of Torah. Those who attempted to live their lives in obedience to God’s word paid with their lives.