Chanukah (Hanukah)


Historical Background

Chanukah is the “Feast of Dedication”. It is not mentioned in the lists of feasts found in Leviticus 23 but it is mentioned in the New Covenant. This holiday arose out of an event that occurred during the intertestamental period. The Talmud says, “On the 25th of Kislev are the days of Chanukkah, which are eight… these were appointed a Festival with Hallel [prayers of praise] and thanksgiving. -Shabbat 21b, Babylonian

The historical background of this holiday comes from a time of great upheaval for Israel in around 167 BCE. Under Alexander the Great, the area of Israel had been conquered and had come under much Greek influence in culture and lifestyle. After Alexander’s death there was a struggle over who would control the area of Israel. The Syrian/Selucids finally won control under the leadership of Antiochus IV.

One of the things Antiochus did to unify the area under his control and to establish his power was to force all the peoples under his rule to adapt the Greek culture. So all the peoples were required to assimilate and to adopt the Greek culture in every area of their lives. This was something that was embraced by most people under their rule including quite a few Jewish people. But there was a group of Jewish people who did not like nor did they embrace these changes. So hostility grew between them and Antiochus.

Finally Antiochus gave an ultimatum to the Jewish people – give up your Jewishness or die. As a part of this Antiochus took his army to Jerusalem, entered the Temple and desecrated it. All the articles in the Temple were torn down and finally a pig was slaughtered and offered on the altar to Zeus to establish the Temple as a new place of worship to the Greek gods. He then insisted that he be called Antiochus Epiphanes, which means “G-d manifest”. The Jewish people made a play on words and called him Antiochus Epimanes meaning crazy man.

Jewish resistance came through a priestly family in the town of Modin. When the Selucian army came and asked the priest, Mattathias, to lead in the pagan worship ceremony. He refused. He and his eight sons rose up and killed the soldiers. One of his sons named Judah led the revolt. He was nicknamed Maccabee, which means “the hammer”. Though they were outnumbered, the Jewish people fought and won against the Syrian army.

At the end of the battle they went to rededicate the Temple. In the process there was enough oil for the menorah to last only one day. The process to make new oil took eight days. Tradition tells us a miracle happened – the oil lasted for eight days. Chanukah is a Hebrew word meaning “dedication”. It comes on the 25th of Kislev and is celebrated for eight days.

This holiday is mentioned in the New Covenant in John 10.22. Yeshua comes to Jerusalem and goes into the Temple at this time most likely to celebrate this feast.

This holiday is celebrated mainly in the home. One of the central parts of the celebration is the chanukiah, a nine branch menorah. Chanukiah is a modern word. In traditional Jewish literature the candelabra for Chanukah was called menorah or ner (light of) Chanukah. This menorah is different from the traditional seven branch menorah seen in Israel or the six branch menorah found in the tabernacle. The chanukiah has eight candles to remind us of the eight days the oil lasted during the restoration of the Temple. There is a ninth candle that is set apart from the other eight. Usually it is elevated. This ninth candle is called the shammash candle. Shammash means “servant”. This candle is lit first and then is used to light all the other candles. One candle is lit the first night. Each night following another candle is added until on the eighth night eight candles are lit. Each night the shammash candle is lit first. You put the candles in from right to left but you light them from left to right.

As believers in Yeshua, the Shammash candle reminds us of Yeshua Himself. He was a servant who came to serve (Mark 10.45). Also, He declares that He is the light of the world. (John 8.12). We know that He gives us light so that we no longer walk in darkness.

The following blessings are recited:

Baruch ata Adonai, Elohenu melech ha-olam asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav, ve-tzivanu le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Blessed are you O L-rd, our G-d, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with Your commandment and commanded us to light the Chanukah lights.

Ba-ruch a-ta Adonai, Eh-lo-hei-nu meh-lech ha-o-lam, sheh-a-sa-ni-sim la-a-vo-tei-nu ba-ya-mim ha-heim ba-z’man ha-zeh

Blessed are You, O L-rd, our G-d, King of the Universe, who did miracles for our fathers in those days in this season.
Another part of the celebration is a dreydel. It is a four sided top-like toy. The dreydel has four Hebrew letters, one on each side. Nun. Gimmel, Hay and Shin. In Israel the last letter is a Pey. These stand for the Hebrew phrase, Nes Gadol Hayah Sham , a great miracle happened there. In Israel the last word is poh meaning “here”. There is a traditional game that is played with the dreydel. There are other meanings given to these four letters:

  1. 4 parts of man – Nefesh (soul), Goof (body), Sechel (intellect), HaKol (all the rest).
  2. 4 foundations of the world – fire, water, wind and earth.
  3. 4 nations that put us in exile – Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome.
  4. The four letters on the dreydel have the Gematria of Mashiach (358). This is also the Gematria of Hashem is King etc. Chanukah is the season when the possibility exists for the light of Mashiach to burst forth. Then, man and the world will be restored to harmonious relationship and the last and most bitter exile of Rome will draw to a to a close, and we will see the fulfillment of the verse that Hashem will be King forever.

Another tradition is the giving of gelt (money), often in the form of chocolate today. The Talmud states that even a very poor person must light Chanukah lights. So if a person has no money to buy the candles, he must go door to door and collect enough money to buy at least one candle for each night of Chanukah. From this came the tradition of giving gifts of money during Chanukah so that someone who needs extra money for candles is helped in a dignified manner. The person giving is practicing tzedakah and the person receiving is helped in a time of need.

The giving of other types of gifts is an American custom. Most feel it was an answer to the Christmas question. It has not traditionally been practiced in Jewish communities outside the United States.

The Laws of Chanukah:

  1. Chanukah begins on the evening of the 25th of Kislev and continues for eight days.
  2. For the entire eight days of Chanukah it is forbidden to fast or to eulogize.
  3. It is permitted to work. However it is customary for women not to work for at least the first half hour of the candles’ burning, and some have the custom not to work for the entire time of burning. The types of activities that are forbidden are things like sewing and laundry etc. (Cooking is permitted.)
  4. There is no obligation to have festive meals. However it is customary to celebrate by eating special meals anyway, because of the fact that the dedication of the Temple and Altar took place during Chanukah.
  5. It is customary to sing during the meals songs that thank and praise Hashem. To sing and speak about Torah makes the meal into a seudat mitzvah, a meal of religious significance.
  6. It is customary to eat milk foods because Yehudit, daughter of Yochanan the High Priest, was taken to be defiled by the Greek ruler Holofernes. She fed him cheese (to make him thirsty) and wine (to quench his thirst); and after getting him drunk she killed him. This was one of the events that sparked the Maccabean uprising. Food fried in oil is also eaten to commemorate the miracle of the Menorah. Latkes and donuts are the most common foods.
  7. One should not fast during Chanukah, even on the occasion of a parent’s yarhzeit (anniversary of death).
  8. The festivities of Chanukah should be combined with study of Torah. Although many people have a custom to play card games on Chanukah, the Mishna Berurah states that, “He who cares for his soul should not involve himself in card games.”
  9. It is obligatory to light candles, and one should even borrow money to fulfill this mitzvah. If a poor person needs money for Chanukah candles the community is obligated to provide for him.
  10. The minimum obligation is that every household should have one candle burning every night. It is customary to be scrupulous regarding this mitzvah: to have one candle on the first night and an additional candle every night (1-8), and for everyone in the house as well.
  11. Any type of oil is acceptable for use in the menorah, however, it is best to use olive oil. The oil should not be made of a forbidden substance, nor should it be something from which it is forbidden to derive benefit.
  12. The menorah should be similar to the Menorah in the Temple and hence most authorities forbid using electric lights or gas lamps.
  13. The light should be clear, and the wicks should not flicker.
  14. Wax candles are also acceptable, providing they have a single wick..
  15. Ideally, the Menorah should be placed outside the house to the left of the entrance. Since anti-Semitism was so common throughout Jewish history it became customary among may communities to place the Menorah inside the house, near the entrance or on the table. In many families it is the custom to place the menorah in a window facing the public, especially where many people share one entrance (e.g., apartment building). In Israel it is customary to light outside in a special box that prevents the flames from blowing out.
  16. It is forbidden to derive benefit from the light of the Menorah just as it was forbidden to derive benefit from the Menorah in the Temple. And also in order to show that its purpose of the Menorah is for a Mitzvah, not just for illumination.
  17. It is prohibited to light the shammash from the Chanukah candles.
  18. It is best to light in the presence of many people in order to publicize the miracle.
  19. On the first night three brachot, blessings are recited. “Lehadlik ner shel Chanukah”, “She asa nissim” and “Shehecheyanu”. On the other nights only the first two blessings are said. All the blessings should be recited before actually lighting the candles. First light the Shammash before the blessings to avoid delay. It is forbidden to speak between the recitation of the blessings and the completion of candle lighting.
    On each night:
    Barukh atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel chanukah. Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made us holy by mitzvot and instructed us to light the Chanukah candles. On each night:
    Barukh atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, she’asah nissim la’avoteinu bayamim haheim baz’man hazeh. Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors at this season in ancient days.
    On first night only:
    Barukh atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam shehecheyanu v’kiyamanu v’higi’anu laz’man hazeh. Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and helped us to reach this moment.
  20. “Haneirot Halalu” is recited either during or after the lighting of the additional candles. “Maoz tsur yeshuaty” is then sung.Haneirot Halalu : We kindle these lights [to commemorate] the saving acts, miracles and wonders which You have performed for our forefathers, in those days at this time, through Your holy kohanim. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your salvations.Maoz Tzur (literal translation). It is a prayer that dates from 13th century CE. The music dates back to at least the 18th century and possibly the 15th century.Rocky Fortress of my Salvation
    It is delightful to praise You
    Restore my House of Prayer
    And there we will give thanks with an offering
    When you have prepared the slaughter
    for the blaspheming foe
    Then I will complete with a song of hymn the dedication of the altar
    Then I will complete with a song of hymn the dedication of the altar

    Here’s the lyrics that are normally sung today:

    Rock of Ages, let our song, Praise Thy saving power
    Thou amidst the raging foes, Wast our sheltering tower
    Furious they assailed us, But Thine arm availed us
    And thy word broke their sword, When our own strength failed us.
    And thy word broke their sword, When our own strength failed us.

    The Menorah should not be moved after is has been lit.

  21. During morning prayers, Shacharit, one should recite the full Hallel every day.
  22. “Al hanissim” the special paragraph of prayers for Chanukah is added in the silent prayers, Shmoneh Esreh and also in Grace after meals. If one forgot to say this addition, one should not repeat either Shmoneh Esreh or Grace.
  23. It is customary to light a Menorah in the Synagogue every evening. It is placed at the southern wall of the Synagogue, in imitation of the Menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Giving extra tzedakah is a part of Chanukah. Here are some ideas of ways you can give and incorporate your children.

  1. Let your children decide where the funds in the tzedakah box should go.
  2. Go through toys and clothes and decide which ones to pass on to kids who don’t have as much as you do.
  3. Collect canned good and donate them.
  4. Make holiday cards for elderly people in a nursing home.
  5. Bring magazines to hospitals and health clinics.
  6. Volunteer at a shelter.

Giving of gifts. One family has adopted the following custom for exchanging gifts. Each year they sit down with their kids ahead of time and come up with the themes for that Chanukah’s gifts.

First night — Major gift night.
Second night — Music night.
Third night — Book night.
Fourth night — Tzedakah night, where each gives to those who are more needy.
Fifth night — Mom’s and/or Dad’s night.
Sixth night — Gift of self, something homemade or a coupon for a service to be performed.
Seventh night — Sports night.
Eighth Night — Small gift night.

This way the kids are involved and the challenges and thoughtfulness of gift-giving become more real.

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