Hanukkah is one of the most widely known holidays on the Jewish calendar. The holiday falls on the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month Kislev (usually December on the Gregorian calendar) and commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple during the reign of the Seleucid Empire in 164 BC.
Also known as the Feast of Dedication and the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish people’s victory in their fight for religious freedom under the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who reigned from 175 to 164 BC. Antiochus had invaded Judea, tried to Hellenize the Jewish people, and desecrated the Jewish Temple by sacrificing a pig on its altar. Mattathias and his son Judah responded by organizing a coalition of Jewish people to fight against Antiochus’ rule. These freedom fighters struck using precise, hammer-like blows, earning themselves the name Maccabees, the Hebrew word for “hammer.” After a three-year struggle, the Maccabees won, cleansed the Temple, and rededicated it on Kislev 25.
As the legend goes, when Judah entered the Temple, he found that only one jar of oil had not been defiled by Antiochus. Tradition, as described in the Talmud, says that the tiny amount of oil miraculously remained burning for eight days until new oil could be made and consecrated. Judah then announced that Jewish people everywhere should celebrate the rededication of the Temple and the miracle of the oil for eight days every year during the month of Kislev.
The most popular Hanukkah tradition includes the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiyah, each night. The hanukkiyah has nine branches. Though the designs can become quite elaborate, there is always one candle that is set apart called the shammash (servant), to light the other eight. Jewish people light one additional candle each evening of the holiday. We know this tradition of candle lighting was also present during the time of Jesus since history records a first-century ce debate about it between the Jewish scholars Hillel and Shammai. Hillel taught that one candle should be lit on the first night of Hanukkah and an additional candle each night (the tradition practiced today) while Shammai disagreed, teaching that all eight candles should be lit the first night, with one fewer candle lit each night afterward.
In addition to candle lighting, Jewish people gather around with their families to read Scripture, recite Psalms, sing songs, play games, give gifts, and eat festive food. Much of the festive treats involves fried foods like potato pancakes (latkes) and donuts (sufganiyot) to serve as reminders of the miracle of the oil. Families also play a popular game with a dreidel, a four-sided top containing the Hebrews letters for the initials of the phrase nes gadol haya sham, “a great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the dreidels change the phrase slightly to nes gadol haya po, “a great miracle happened here.” Loved ones exchange gifts, and parents give children Hanukkah gelt (money). Today, many give chocolate wrapped in gold paper instead of actual money.
In Israel today, Hanukkah is a national holiday. Schools are closed, menorahs decorate public and government buildings, students celebrate with holiday songs and parties, and Israelis go on sightseeing walks to look at the beautiful lights and menorahs lining people’s windows. One of the highlights of Hanukkah in Israel is the annual torch relay race from Modi’in (where the Maccabean revolt began) to Jerusalem. Runners pass off the torch until they reach the Western Wall, where the torch is then handed off to the chief rabbi to light Jerusalem’s giant hanukkiyah.
Hanukkah’s Ultimate Light
After the Maccabean victory, the Jewish religious authorities made Simon, another of Mattathias’ sons, the high priest, even though his family—the Hasmoneans—were not descendants of Zadok, the line through which the high priest must come (1 Chronicles 24:1–3). Albeit they declared him priest with a disclaimer: “until a trustworthy prophet should arise” (1 Maccabees 14:41, RSV). Years later, Aristobulus, Simon’s descendant, became king, although he was not a descendant of King David. The end of the Hasmonean dynasty—and its illegitimate rule as kings and priests—finally came in 37 bc. This time marked the beginning of the Roman Empire, the reign of King Herod, and the birth of Israel’s true prophet, priest, and king—Jesus the Messiah.
In John 10:22–24, Jesus was walking in the Temple during Hanukkah: “At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’” Jesus responded by reiterating His claim to be the Son of God, one with the Father, and the Shepherd of His sheep (vv. 25–39).
About seven hundred years earlier, the Jewish prophet Isaiah foretold of that day: “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (Isaiah 9:2). On that Hanukkah day, during the darkest and coldest part of the year, the Light of the World revealed Himself as the ultimate light of Hanukkah—the hope of His people Israel.
by: Jennifer Miles
 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Hanukkah.” Encyclopedia Britannica, September 29, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hanukkah.
 Viva Sarah Press, “The top eight things to do in Israel on the eight days of Hanukkah,” Israel21c, November 24, 2013, https://www.israel21c.org/the-top-eight-things-to-do-in-israel-on-the-eight-days-of-hanukkah.
 “Hanukkah,” Chosen People Ministries, accessed November 20, 2021, https://www.chosenpeople.com/site/hanukkah-countdown-to-messiah/.