1) Does Hanukkah Celebrate War?
Some people falsely claim Hanukkah remembers a Jewish victory in war, but this is not the case. Hanukkah means “dedication”, referring to the purification of the Temple in Jerusalem and its rededication to God after it had been profaned by the Syrian Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus had a pig slaughtered in the Temple as a symbolic assault on God and then declared himself a living god. When the Jewish rebels, the Hasmoneans, defeated the Greeks none of their great battles and victories are remembered as spiritual holidays. Instead they focused on what was important, the rededication of the Temple to God and the miracle which God caused allowing a menorah to stay lit for eight days when they only had enough oil for one.
2) Why did the Light of the Menorah Matter?
“In the tent of meeting, without the veil which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall set it in order, to burn from evening to morning before the LORD; it shall be a statute for ever throughout their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel.” Exodus 27:21
Most windows in the ancient world were wider on the inside than the outside, this allowed the light coming in to be broadened, filling up the space inside with more light. In the temple however the windows were reversed, narrower on the inside than the outside, this was designed so that the light from the Menorah would shine outside the Temple walls. God commanded Israel to keep it lit because it was a symbol of God’s wisdom and righteousness, it was to be a reminder to the Jewish people that God was with them, and their responsibility to keep their lives and nation as pure as the light of the menorah itself.
3) How exactly is Hanukkah celebrated?
Everyone around the world knows how to celebrate Christmas, even in non Christian countries Christmas is known, unfortunately often in its consumerist form, but many of us do not know how exactly Hanukkah is celebrated. The focus of the holiday is on the lighting of the menorah, a candleabra with four candlesticks to the right and four to the left of a central, elevated candle called a shamesh, the servant candle. During each of the eight nights a candle is added to the menorah, so by the end of the eight days the menorah is lit up completely.
Additional words are added to certain prayers during the holiday. for example, on the first night the following is said,
“Boruch A-toh Ado-noi E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ho-olom A-sher Ki-de-sha-nu Be-mitz-vo-sov Vi-tzi-vo-nu Le-had-lik Ner Shel Hanukkah”
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light.”
For the children, small gifts are given each of the eight days, and they also play with the dreidel
4) What is the deal with the dreidel?
A dreidel is a small spinning top, used by children to play games, on each side are the letters Nun, Gimmel, Hey and Shin forming an acronym for “Nes gadol hayah sham” meaning “a great miracle happened there”, a reference to Hanukkah. The origins of the dreidel are difficult to determine. A game involving spinning tops was played in the greco-roman empire, but was also popular in England and Germany over the past few hundred years. Whether the dreidel is as ancient as the holiday itself though is not nearly as important as the message of the dreidel story. It is said that during the repressive reign of Antiochus Epiphanes children would study Torah in secret in caves. When Greek soldiers approached they children would pull out the spinning tops. Jews have been victim to multiple forced conversions and repressions in their history, perhaps most notoriously the Spanish Inquisition which forced Jews to practice their faith in secret for generations.
The story of the dreidel teaches Jewish children the importance of keeping faith in God even against a powerful and brutal State.
In Israel the dreidel is designed slightly differently, the last letter has become a Pei, making the dreidel mean, “Nes Gadol Hayah Poh” “A great miracle happened here”.
5) Is Hanukkah just a Christmas for Jews?
Each year it seems like Hanukkah becomes more and more visible on our cultural landscape, especially over the last twenty years. Because it falls on the calendar approximately at the same time, it seems as though Hanukkah can be called Jewish Christmas. But many people are under the impression this increasing prominence is due to the Jewish People trying to piggy back on a Christian holiday and that Hanukkah is too minor for the Jewish people to sincerely make it a big deal.Historically speaking Hanukkah has generally been a quiet holiday but there is a very good reason why Jews today celebrate it loudly and visibly, a reason connected to the meaning of the holiday itself, religious freedom.
Hanukkah carries a special commandment, “pirsumei nissa” to “publicize the miracle”. Just as the windows the Temple were designed to spread the light of the menorah to the outside world, Jews are commanded to make the miracle of Hannukah as visible as they can, it is the only holiday where publicity is part of the event itself. For much of Jewish history in the western world though it was often unwise for Jews to announce themselves and their faith too loudly to an often antagonistic world. Over time however, as religious freedom has become a central value of the western world, Jews have felt safer publicizing the holiday. In Russia for example under Stalin, Jews would often confine the menorah to the home and synagogue, however when the Berlin Wall fell and Communism lost its iron grip, the Jews had a large menorah has been lit in the capitol itself.
6) Why doesn’t Hanukkah happen the same time each year?
Christmas always occurs on December 25th, but while Hanukkah generally falls in December the exact date can shift by many weeks, The reason for this is that the Jews use a lunar calendar to track the months. Neither the Hebrew nor Gregorian calenders track directly with the motion of the earth around the sun. On the Gregorian calender we add an extra day to february every four years. The lunar year generally falls ten days short of the solar year so seven out of every nineteen years have an additional month. This ensured that seasonal feasts happened in the right season, but it means that, relative to the solar calender, the exact dates of Jewish holidays shift slightly year to year.
7) What sort of foods are eaten on Hanukkah?
Because it is a holiday commemorating the burning of oil most Hanukkah foods are fried. For Jews from Europe, particularly those in Russia, potato pancakes called latkes are tremendously popular. For Jews of Middle Eastern decent, fried doughnuts are the hot item, known as sufganiot in Israel.
8) Did Jesus celebrate Hanukkah?
“Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” John 10:22
The Feast of Dedication which is referred to above was Hanukkah. We know that Jesus lived a Jewish life and, with very few exceptions, lived and socialized with other Jews. Like the rest of the Jewish people, Jesus followed the Biblical commandments to journey to Jerusalem during the Pilgrim’s Festivals and he was also in Jerusalem for Hanukkah. It seems reasonable he would have lit the menorah like other Jews during the eight day festival.
Now Jesus announced Himself as the Light of World so whether ‘celebrating’ Hanukkah was the right word is up for debate but it is clear the festival was a part of his life.