BLOG POST: Festival Diary – The History of Hanukkah

We are starting a new blog series inviting members and friends of WIN to prepare a ‘festival diary’, exploring the history and significance of specific rituals or outlining the routine of religious celebrations, as a window into the lived experience of people of different faiths. Our first post is a historical reflection on Hanukkah from our External Relations Director Jackie Goymour.


Hanukkah (also known as the Festival of Lights) is a celebration of serious life-saving accomplishments, but it is also a lighthearted holiday filled with food, alcohol, and candle lighting ceremonies around the world. Jewish history has had much darkness, but on this festival there are eight nights of light – the rituals and traditions vary among different cultures of Jews.

Over 2100 years ago, the Land of Israel was dominated by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) who sought to Hellenize the people. In 167 BCE, against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God. Hoping to light the Temple’s menorah, they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks; miraculously, this one-day supply burned for eight days until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.

The Battle Against All Odds
In 167 BCE fighting began in Modiin, a village not far from Jerusalem. Led by the courageous Mattathias and his sons, the Jews fought for over three years. After the first year, Mattathias died, his son Judah Maccabee took charge of the growing army. Although the Jews were outnumbered and had less ammunition, their determination eventually led them to victory – they defeated the Greek army against all odds!
This Calls For A Celebration
After their great victory, Judah Maccabee and his soldiers went to the holy Temple where they found  many things were missing or broken, including the golden menorah. They repaired and purified the Temple, and after completing the task they decided to have a dedication ceremony and light the great lamp. They looked everywhere for oil but found only a small flask that contained enough oil to produce light for a single day. Miraculously, this oil lasted for eight days, giving them enough time to obtain new oil to keep the menorah lit.
The Menorah

Menorah lighting was instituted to announce to the entire world that God makes miracles for those who stand up for truth and justice.

The shamash – the “attendant” candle that is used to kindle the other lights – sits a bit higher or lower than the other candles, on the ninth branch of the menorah. Men and women alike are obligated to participate in the menorah lighting.

Hanukkah Traditions

In another allusion to the Hanukkah miracle, traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in oil. Potato pancakes (latkes) and jam-filled donuts (sufganiot) are particularly popular in many Jewish households.

Other Hanukkah customs include playing with four-sided spinning tops called dreidels and exchanging gifts. In recent decades, Hanukkah has exploded into a major commercial phenomenon, largely because it falls near or overlaps with Christmas. From a religious perspective, however, it remains a relatively minor holiday that places no restrictions on working, attending school or other activities.

Origin of the Menorah
Many people, understandably, think that the ancient symbol of Judaism is the six-pointed star, referred to as the Star of David. However, the far more ancient and traditional symbol of Judaism is the Menorah, the branched ceremonial candelbra which stood in the Temple in Jerusalem. But why the Menorah? It is thought that the idea of the Menorah came from this plant “Salvia Palaestina”, a plant which is found in Israel and has been for thousands of years. At Hanukkah, the Menorah is called a Chanukiah.
It May Be Lost, But Never Forgotten!

Following the destruction of the Temple, the menorah became an important symbol of Jewish history. It is a reminder of the sovereignty of the Temple.

Hanukkah is observed with joy and celebration in Jewish communities around the world. It commemorates a victory and the rededication of the desecrated Temple to the God of Israel. The victory is that of a small band of Jews led by Judah Maccabeus in their battle against the Syrian Hellenists and the oppressive reign of King Antiochus Epiphanes in 165 BCE. The Maccabean uprising is significant because it was the first time that the Jews resorted to arms in order to preserve their faith and religious liberties. The victorious Judah returned to Jerusalem to find a sacked and burned Temple which had been desecrated by pagan rituals. All the oil vessels had been polluted by substances repugnant to the Jewish faith, except for one cruse which contained the pure consecrated olive oil and still had the High Priest’s seal. But it only contained enough oil to burn for one day. The Jews lit it and it lasted eight days, allowing the priests to cleanse the Temple precincts while they prepared new supplies of holy oil.

The miracle of the oil is symbolisedin Jewish homes, synagogues and communities by the kindling of eight lights. Starting with one light, each night one more is lit until the eighth day, when eight are lit. The ninth candle, in the middle, serves to light the eight others. The miracle of the oil is remembered in the kitchen with the abundant quantities used to deep fry the traditional Hanukah treats.

There are eight nights of lights and blessings the world over but there are also many ways different communities make the holiday uniquely their own.

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