The Jewish festival Hanukkah begins on the evening of December 8 and extends for eight days. While it is not the most important of Jewish feasts, Hanukkah recalls and celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Because it occurs in close proximity to Christmas, many Christians in the USA are at least familiar with Hanukkah. It makes sense to say something about Hanukkah here on our Franciscan Media blog.
In essence, Hanukkah celebrates the victory of light over the darkness, of fidelity to religion over desecration of the sacred, of virtue over vice.
Narratives of the rededication of the Temple are found in first (1Macc 4) and second Maccabees (2Macc 10). It is the story of how Judas Maccabeus and his follows led a successful rebellion of faithful Jews against a cruel army of invaders bent on wiping out the Jewish people and their religion.
“Early in the morning of the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight they arose and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar of holocausts that they had made” (1Macc 4:52). That is calculated to be December 14, 164 B.C. according to today’s calendar. The rededication of the Temple, according to 1Macc 4:54, is also the very anniversary of the day on which foreigners had defiled it. To commemorate the rededication of the Temple, the festival of Hanukkah was developed into an annual observance among devout Jews.
Prominent in the celebration of the Hanukkah is the lighting of a special menorah or candelabra with nine candles. It is a feast celebrated in the homes of faithful families. The lighting of one candle for each day is accompanied with prayers and the retelling of the story of the rededication of the Temple. There are eight candles (or olive oil lamps) for each of the eight days of the feast with a ninth candle available for lighting and relighting the candle of the day.
Because the army occupying Judea was determined to eliminate every practice of their religion, Jews had to hide many of their practices after the oppression. Teaching youngsters about their Jewish faith was prohibited, so various means were developed for operating illegal religious schools. Children were taught to hide the fact that they were studying the Torah and the meaning of the faith.
One custom developed over the centuries was that Jewish children would act as if they were playing when religious freedom was denied. That is how the dreidel (four-sided tops) became associated with the feast of Hanukkah. The dreidel used today is inscribed with four Hebrew letters—nun, gimmel, hey, shin—a code for the sentence, “a great miracle happened there” (or “here” if the top is for use in modern Israel). Another custom for Hanukkah is eating food fried in oil, like potato pancakes and deep fried donuts.
This week it is appropriate for us Christians to think about religious freedom and to remember our origin in Judaism. It is also good to remember that even today religious persecution and prejudice still raise their ugly heads. Light a candle and ponder these Hanukkah themes.
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