What is Hanukah? Why is it celebrated? What is the history?
This post is sprinkled with learning sheets and resources for you to use to help you better understand this festival and why it is important to those who celebrate. All learning sheets and crafts are boldface for easy distinction between learning resources and links. (The line under the “H” in Hanukah is my way of informing you that the letter is guttural in Hebrew pronunciation.)
What is Hanukah?
The events recorded in Maccabees I Chapters 1-4 culminate into a celebration that we now call Hanukah. The term, Maccabee, comes from a title given to a main character in these books, Judas, son of Mattathias. The term is known as the hammer or the extinguisher which is quite fitting as Judas is remembered by defeating the enemies of the Holy One. First, the collective term was used to identity Judas Maccabees’ family and then later it identified people who supported Judas including those who helped him to reconquer Jerusalem and rededicate the Temple. Hanukah means dedication. This word is used several times in the Hebrew Scriptures from the Tabernacle dedication by Moses, the First Temple dedication by King Solomon, and when the walls of Jerusalem were dedicated by Nehemiah.
Maccabees is an Apocryphal book appearing in the canon titled the Apocrypha which includes history beyond the TaNaK. Hanukah is an eight-day festival established to remember and celebrate the events recorded in Maccabees I Chapters 1-4. The dates of observation shift each year on the Gregorian calendar, but the start date on the Biblical calendar is always the 25th day of the Ninth Month. (The Ninth Month was later called Kislev and corresponds with November-December on the Gregorian calendar.) In 2020, Hanukah begins on the evening of December 10 – the evening of December 18 on the traditional Judaic calendar.
Why is Hanukah celebrated?
- To worship the Most High.
- To remember the Temple.
- To honor culture.
- To celebrate victory.
- To gather in family or community.
- To understand the political and cultural climate of first century Israel.
- To refresh ourselves on the principles of faithfulness, courage, and holiness.
What is the history of Hanukah?
The final events in the Hebrew Scriptures concern the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Then, the Persian empire was in control of Jerusalem. Later, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and replaced it with the Greek empire. He died young and his kingdom was divided among his four generals (Ptolemy, Seleicus, Lysimahus, and Antigonus I). Each general established their own state within the Greek empire.
Conquest of Jerusalem
The territory of Israel shifted back and forth between two of the Greek states, Ptolemias and the Selucids; but eventually the Selucids came to rule under Antiochus IV Epiphanies and he was chosen as the king over the land of Israel. A Gentile ruling over Israel? During Antiochus’ reign, many Judeans were Hellenized. They had assimilated to Greek culture including language, apparel, and religion. Antiochus attacked and defeated Egypt. He also attacked Jerusalem and ruined the Temple. Two years later, his men attacked again and built a citadel near the Temple. His efforts were getting more and more fierce wanting to expand his kingdom and Hellenize all within. He issued a decree that all people would worship and sacrifice to Greek gods.
To make matters more flagrant, Hellenized Judeans were active in persuading non-converted Judeans. While many in Israel stood strong, unfortunately, this order was not good news for Judeans. They were forbidden to follow the Torah and worshiping the God of Israel. It was impossible to comply with Antiochus’ decree and honor their culture and faith. This new law threatened them culturally, ethnically, and even ceremonially. Yet, the Judeans faced death in not obeying the law of the land. Antiochus visited the Temple and made an unlawful sacrifice on the Altar of Burnt Offerings. This offensive act was known as The Abomination. Apparently, he sacrificed swine, an unclean animal according to the Torah and Hebraic culture.
Mattathias ben Johanan (the Hasmonean)
Mattathias was from Judea with priestly lineage. He refused to disobey the God of Israel and dishonor his own culture. So much so, that when the king’s official visited Mattathias’ town and bribed Mattathias into sacrificing to a strange god, he resisted. A fellow Judean from his own town volunteered to make the sacrifice. Mattathias interrupted the unlawful sacrifice by slaying him, then he killed the king’s official to spare his life.
The Battle Begins, 167-160 BCE (the Maccabean Revolt)
Matthias and his family fled to the mountains and many other Judeans followed and camped in remote locations. They all knew that the king and his men would end their lives for disobeying the king’s order to keep the Commandments. By the time Matthias’ behavior was reported in Jerusalem, the king’s soldiers were ready to attack. They confronted a group of faithful Judeans who refused to surrender, but it also happened to be the Sabbath day so they would not fight back either. They were murdered. When Mattathias and his crew heard of their deaths, he ruled that Judeans could defend themselves and their families even on the Shabbat day. Matthias and his son, Judas, continued to fight battles against the king’s troops and unfaithful Judeans. Judas was victorious against both the armies of Apollonius and Seron.
Before Matthias passed on, he gathered his family and encouraged them to be faithful to the God of Israel. He also chose two of his sons, Judas and Simon, to be people leaders. Judas was appointed over the army while Simon as a counselor to the people. He charged them to remember the deeds of their Ancestors listing loyal forefathers and foremothers from Abraham to Daniel.
Under Judas’ leadership, the army of faithful Judeans defeated many of the king’s armies. Again, Judas was victorious defeating the armies of Gorgias and Lysias. Judas became known as Judas Maccabee. The name was rather appropriate considering his skill and success with slaying the king’s armies. Eventually, Judas and his army were able to reconquer Jerusalem and the Temple. His brother would take over later and establish the Hasmonean Dynasty.
The First Hanukah
Can you imagine the state of the Temple once Judas and his men arrived? It was unsightly. Judas assigned qualified priests to cleanse the Temple. While the priests cleaned, they also rebuilt the altar that Antiochus desecrated. On the same day of The Abomination, Judeans rededicated the altar and offered a lawful sacrifice. They decorated the Temple with a golden crown and small shields. They rebuilt a new altar, sanctuary, and the interior. They made new holy vessels, brought in the menorah*, and the altar of incense. It was a joyous occasion for them. For eight days they celebrated this rededication with songs, harps, lutes, and cymbals. The Dedication Festival (Hanukah), celebrated for eight days just like Solomon’s dedication of the First Temple (I Kings 8: 65-66) and Hezekiah’s reconsecration (II Chronicles 29:17), commemorates this event. Judas and his brothers declared that this new festival would be celebrated to remember the Second Temple and the events that led up to its restoration and rededication.
*The menorah is a 7-branch lampstand. Though many menorah crafts will display a 9-branch lampstand, that is not the Biblical description found in the Torah.
Cook a meal. Read the story. Light the menorah.
Use the review questions I shared to make it a family affair or a personal study.
Celebrate the victory in song, music, and dance.
Love, Light, and Hanukah
This is a great read. HanukKah is one of my favorite Holy Days!
Just wow!!! That was beautifully and masterfully written! The passion,love and care that went into the process of creating that was evident and felt! Wow! Completely enthralled in every word!!! Todah rabbah for sharing!!! The most powerful piece I’ve read to date!!!
Thank you so much!
This helps greatly!
We have been reading Macabees to the children and I said, next year we are using a map and visuals.
This will be wonderful for our final reading this evening.
Thank you for the wonderful content!