Thursday, December 7, 2023

Overview of Hanukkah

Photo by Lawrence Peskin, History Professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore

Hanukkah, (Hebrew: “Dedication”) also called Festival of Lights, or Feast of the Maccabees, Judaism festival that begins on Kislev 25, the Judaism calendar, & is celebrated for 8 days. Hanukkah reaffirms the ideals of Judaism & commemorates in particular the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem by the lighting of candles on each day of the festival. Although not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, Hanukkah came to be widely celebrated & remains one of the most popular Judaism religious observances. 

Origin & History

Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean (Hasmonean) victories over the forces of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (reigned 175–164 BCE) & the rededication of the Temple on Kislev 25, 164 BCE. Led by Mattathias & his son Judas Maccabeus (died c. 161 BCE), the Maccabees were the first Jews who fought to defend their religious beliefs rather than their lives. According to I Maccabees, a text of the Apocrypha (writings excluded from the Judaismcanon but included in the Roman Catholic & Eastern Orthodox Old Testament canons), Antiochus had invaded Judaea, tried to Hellenize the Jews, & desecrated the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Following the Judaism victory in a three-year struggle against Antiochus, Judas ordered the cleansing & restoration of the Temple. After it was purified, a new altar was installed & dedicated on Kislev 25. Judas then proclaimed that the dedication of the restored Temple should be celebrated every year for eight days beginning on that date. In II Maccabees the celebration is compared to the festival of Sukkoth (the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths), which the Jews were unable to celebrate because of the invasion of Antiochus. Hanukkah, therefore, emerged as a celebration of the dedication, as the word itself suggests.

Although the traditional practice of lighting candles at Hanukkah was not established in the books of the Maccabees, the custom most likely started relatively early. The practice is enshrined in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), which describes the miracle of the oil in the Temple. According to the Talmud, when Judas Maccabeus entered the Temple, he found only a small jar of oil that had not been defiled by Antiochus. The jar contained only enough oil to burn for one day, but miraculously the oil burned for eight days until new consecrated oil could be found, establishing the precedent that the festival should last eight days. The early date for this story or at least the practice of lighting eight candles is confirmed by the debate of the 1st-century-CE scholars Hillel & Shammai. Hillel & his school taught that one candle should be lit on the first night of Hanukkah & one more each night of the festival. Shammai held that all eight candles should be lit the first night, with the number decreasing by one each night thereafter.

The celebration of Hanukkah includes a variety of religious & nonreligious customs. Like Purim, Hanukkah is a joyous festival that lacks the work restrictions characteristic of the major festivals of Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur.


The most important of all Hanukkah traditions is the lighting of the menorah each evening. Also known as the Hanukkah lamp, the menorah recalls the Temple lampstand & is a simple or elaborate candelabra with eight branches plus a holder for the shammash (“servant”) candle that is used to light the other eight candles. One candle is lit on the first evening, & an additional candle is lit on each subsequent evening until eight candles are burning on the last evening. Olive oil was traditionally used for lighting the menorah, but it was replaced by candles, which are inserted in the menorah incrementally each night of the festival from right to left but are lit from left to right. A blessing is also offered while the candles are lit each night. The menorah was originally kindled outside the home, but it was brought inside in ancient times to guard against offending neighbors.

Liturgy & Prayers

The Hanukkah observance is also characterized by the daily reading of Scripture, recitation of some of the Psalms, almsgiving, & singing of a special hymn. The liturgy includes Hallel, public readings from the Torah, & the Ężal ha-nissim (“for the miracles”) prayer. The Scroll of Antiochus, an early medieval account of Hanukkah, is read in some synagogues & homes. Along with the daily prayers, thanks are offered to God for delivering the strong into the hands of the weak & the evil into the hands of the good. The word Hanukkah in Hebrew also means “education,” & rabbis & educators try to instill in their congregants & students the notion that the holiday celebrates Judaism's strengths, perseverance, & continuity.