What is Hanukkah?

As I mentioned before, Hanukkah is brand new to me, and before I could hope to lead my kids, I had to become familiar with the festival myself. (Thanks a ton to Steve Eastman, who has studied Jewish culture quite extensively and who recommended some reading material to get me started.)

This “Festival of Lights” or “Feast of Dedication” is mentioned in John 10:22 but is not actually one of the holy days prescribed by God in the Old Testament. It is prophecied in the book of Daniel, however (8:21-25). Its origins can be traced to the years between the Old and New Testaments, shortly after Alexander the Great ruled most of the world.

After Alexander’s death, his four generals squabbled over his empire, and Judea was caught in the middle, under the control of the Syrians. Eventually, official policy dictated that all captured peoples must assimilate, giving up old ways, languages and religions, but many Jews refused to comply.

To drive home the point, troops were marched into Jerusalem and the Holy Temple was desecrated. Rebellion began in a small Judean town, led by a family of priests, and these few Maccabees, as the rebels were called, drove the powerful Syrians out of Jerusalem. The prophecy in Daniel makes it clear that this would be a deliverance orchestrated by God – a miracle that preserved the Jewish presence for the arrival of the Messiah several generations later.

The second miracle occured during the subsequent cleansing of the temple. When the broken lampstand was restored, only enough oil was found to burn for one day. It would take eight days to produce and consecrate new oil. The menorah was lit anyway, and miraculously, it burned for eight days, until it could be replenished.

So, how are these dual miracles celebrated? With the lighting of a special, 9-candle menorah. (The temple lamp had 7 branches.) This year, Hanakkuh starts on Dec. 11 and lasts till the 19th. Each night, a blessing is said and candles are lit at dusk; one on the first night, two on the second, and so on to the eighth, to commemorate the eight-day miracle. The central candle, the shamash, or “servant,” is lit first and used to lite the others. To Christians and Messianic Jews, this is the symbol of Messiah in Hanukkah – the servant, the light of the world, the coming deliverer. What a fitting way to usher in our Christmas!

Other traditional Hanukkah activities include meals of foods cooked in oil; dreidles, toy tops used in a children’s game; and singing, all of which I intend to incorporate in this first exploration of the holiday with my kids. By hearing the story and participating in the activities, I hope they will learn to appreciate this ancient culture and grab hold of these lessons of faith and courage and light and hope and deliverance in a way that won’t be easily forgotten.

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