Articles on Hanukkah
Among the festivities and symbols associated with Hanukkah, one of the best-known is the children's game called Dreidel. A dreidel is a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. The four letters are: 'nun', 'gimel', 'hey', and 'shin', which form an acrostic for the phrase "A Great Miracle Happened There."
In Israel, the dreidel is a little different. The last letter is changed to 'pay', meaning "A Great Miracle Happened HERE!" To play the game the children spin the top remembering the historical event when once again, our people were saved from destruction.
During the eight days of Hanukkah there is a menorah that is lit as well. The Hanukkah menorah is called a Hanukkiyah, and has nine candleholders, rather than seven. Eight of the candles represent each night of Hanukkah, and the ninth candle is called the Shamash, which is Hebrew for servant. The Shamash, or servant candle is lit first, and is then used to light the other candles, increasing by one more each night, until all are lit on the eighth night. Foods traditionally enjoyed on Hanukkah include: Latkes (potato pancakes fried in oil, my favorite) and in Israel, jelly donuts (my wife Miriam's favorite). Though considered by many as simply a Jewish holiday, Hanukkah contains profound biblical truths for all people to seriously consider.
Maoz Tzur, Rock of Ages, is perhaps the most familiar anthem associated with Hanukkah celebrations. Though the hymn Rock of Ages refers to the Creator, somehow Hanukkah discussions are concerned with other things. Menorahs, latkes and dreydls seem to take priority over prayer to God in modern day expressions. Some say Hanukkah is nothing more than "the Jewish Christmas." Is this allegation true? Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a professor of Jewish studies at the City University of New York, said:
"Our social, political and even intellectual existence is not isolated from Christianity, and since Christians celebrate one of their most important religious festivals during the month of December, the festival of Hanukkah donned overwhelming importance for Jews.
"Jews had to find some way in which they could place the accent upon their own identity. And Hanukkah was catapulted from the status of minor festival into one of great importance. We, too, have become involved in Hanukkah gifts, Hanukkah wrappers, Hanukkah parties, Hanukkah savings clubs..."
The biggest lesson of Hanukkah was the power of the spirit, the ability of God’s people to live by God’s commands. …Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts (Zech. 4:6). In between the Testaments, around 164 b.c., the Maccabees (or Hasmoneans), led by Judah Maccabee, wrested Judea from the rule of the Seleucids–Syrian rulers who supported the spread of Greek religion and culture. Hanukkah commemorates the recapture of Jerusalem by the Maccabees and the establishment of the Temple. The Temple had been profaned by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of Syria and overlord of Palestine. The Maccabees ruled Judea until Herod took power in 37 b.c.e.
Hanukkah centers around a nine-branch menorah. The Temple menorah has seven branches. The Hanukkah menorah has nine branches, eight to remember the eight days of Hanukkah and one is the shamus, the candle used to light the other candles (this is usually either higher or separate from the other eight branches).
The story of Hanukkah goes back to a time after Alexander the Great had conquered most of the known world. When he died at a very young age, his four generals divided the conquered territories between themselves. The Ptolemies took the area around Egypt, and the Seleucids took the area that is today Syria. Judea was almost a no-man's land between them, fought over by both sides. Eventually the Seleucids under Antiochus IV gained power and control over Judea. In order to secure his position, Antiochus required all the captured people to adopt the Greek way of life called Hellenism. This was not a problem in most areas because the Greek culture was very respected in those times and many of the Jews adopted it and gave up the Law and teachings of the prophets. There were, however, many die hard rebels who could not give up their worship of the one true God and this angered Antiochus., ...
Our story starts not with the miracle of Chanukah, but 1,437 years earlier with Jacob's ladder. Jacob had a prophetic dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder that reached from the ground to the heavens. These angels weren't Hollywood extras with fluorescent tubes over their heads - they were, in fact, incorporeal spiritual messengers - the protecting forces of four great kingdoms.
Four kingdoms that would in the future dominate and exile the Jewish People: Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome.
At first, Yaakov saw the angel of Babylon ascend the ladder 70 steps and then he came down: The Jewish People were in the Babylonian exile for 70 years.
The protecting angel of the Empire of Persia and Media then climbed up the ladder 52 steps before he descended: The Jewish People were in exile in Persia 52 years.
Then the angel of the Empire of Greece climbed 180 rungs - the domination of Greece lasted 180 years.
Finally, the protecting angel of the Roman Empire climbed up the ladder, but he didn't come down. Yaakov feared that this final exile would never end, until Hashem promised Yaakov - If he will rise up like an eagle and make his nest among the stars - even from there I will bring him down.
We are still in that final exile, in the softly asphyxiating embrace of Rome's spiritual heirs....
Once again we celebrate the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukkah (as it is usually called in more modern times). And, as is often the case, our celebration overlaps and coincides with the celebration of Christmas by the Christian Church. As Messianic believers, we once again are faced with the question of self-identity and group definition: as followers of Yeshua, do we not find an identity with our brothers and sisters in the Christian church who likewise confess Him as Messiah? Should not we, then, join with them in their celebration of the birth of Messiah? Yet as those who (Jew and non-Jew alike) have adopted a Torah pursuant life-style, we have come to appreciate the long standing traditions of the synagogue in which the Torah continued to be upheld in spite of the churchʼs insistence that it had been abolished by the life and death of Yeshua. And, the synagogue does not celebrate Christmas!
But there is more to the self-identity issue than just whether or not to celebrate the birth of Messiah with our Christian brothers and sisters in the holiday known as Christmas. In our desire to return to a biblical life-style by obeying Torah, we have also come to realize that much of what we may have learned in the Christian Church was so heavily laden with tradition that it strayed from the pages of Scripture and became manʼs religion, not Godʼs. Weʼve come to a conviction, then, that we must read and study the sacred words of the Bible with “new eyes,” testing what we know (or think we know) against the unchanging rule of Godʼs self-revelation.
As we have done this, we more and more have come to the conclusion that one of the root sins of mankind is the fallen tendency to mix into our worship those things God has forbidden. To put it more bluntly, we have found it a natural outflow of our fallen nature to introduce idolatry into the worship of the God of Israel. This practice has a “long and prestigious history.” It began in Gan Eden when Chava thought she could mix together the commands of God with the advise and schemes of Satan—that somehow the two were actually compatible. Then we have the infamous Golden Calf event in which we “reasoned” that adding a few more gods along side of the One we worshipped was not only thinkable, but acceptable. I could go on and on with this litany of syncretism: the northern kingdom under Jeraboam, the Asherah poles, etc., etc.
Which brings us back to the theme of Hanukkah. Hanukkah, at its core, is not foremost a celebration of our victory over the pagan enemy, but rather a victory over the draw to syncretism. If one reads carefully the stories of the Hasmonean struggle, one comes to the conclusion that they were not insisting we cease to worship the God of Israel. No, actually they were simply wanting us to do away with the belief that He is the only One worthy of worship. For as long as the true believers in God continued to proclaim the narrow view that He alone was God and there were no others, it cast all other religions as false and required all to repent of their idolatry and turn to the One, true God. In other words, the Israelite belief in God, grounded as it was in the utter uniqueness of His position in the universe, judged and condemned all other worship.
Hanukah is a holiday the very reason for whose existence is to commemorate the struggle and ultimate victory of Torah over pagan culture. The Pharisees (Rabbis) have always presented themselves as the upholders of true Torah. How ironic then, for those who do not yet truly know the Pharisees, that they inserted pagan elements into the celebration of Hanukah and, in doing so, redefined its meaning to this very day. What exactly am I talking about? Read on.
The main primary historical sources for the events of Hanukah are the Books of Maccabees I 1 & II 2. Read these books from cover to cover and you will notice a very curious omission: nowhere in the entire text is there mention of a flask of oil which lasted miraculously for eight days. The Book of Maccabees covers – comprehensively – the events of Hanukah, sometimes in excruciating detail, and nowhere is such an event ever recorded.
Next, look at the writings of Josephus, c. 70-100 CE, (originally) a Pharisee, and you will see much the same thing – no mention anywhere of a miracle concerning a flask of oil which lasted for eight days. Josephus states that Hanukah is known as the Festival of Lights, but the explanation he gives for the appellation has nothing to do with miraculous oil: “And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.”3
Look also at Megilat Ta’anit 4 (first century CE), considered to be the earliest extant Pharisaic document (not to be confused with its scholion, or Hebrew commentary, which is a Talmudic or post-Talmudic document), and again there is no mention of a miracle of oil lasting for eight days. And these are Rabbinical documents! So what’s going on here?
To help us understand, let us ask ourselves the following obvious question: When is the first time that mention of a miraculous flask of oil is made? The answer: in a braita in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 21b5, which dates it at around 200 CE. (A braita is a statement from Mishnaic times which didn’t make it into the final cut of the Mishnah, but which is preserved in the Talmud.)
Many believers, upon recognizing the unscriptural and pagan origin of Christmas, look for alternatives to this heathen observance. We do not intend to incorporate into this study all the details regarding the unscriptural observance of Christmas, and how it actually dishonors the Son of Almighty Yahweh instead of honoring Him. Nevertheless, for those who may not be familiar with the origin of Christmas, most scholarly resources readily admit to its heathen origin, of how it absorbed the Roman holiday called Saturnalia, cosmetically converting its rituals into a "Christian holiday" under a new name: Christmas.[i] Although many proclaim Christmas to be a Christian victory over paganism, it can be demonstrated that the opposite is true: Christmas is in fact a heathen triumph over Christianity. Consider this: It was never a Jewish custom to observe birthdays.[ii] Thus, Yeshua the Messiah never celebrated His own birthday. Furthermore, there is no record of any early believers observing His birthday or any semblance of the holiday we know as "Christmas." In fact, it wasn't until the fourth century that a Catholic pope named Julius first declared December 25th as being the anniversary of the Messiah's birth.[iii] Consider, therefore, the fact that for over three hundred years the Holy Spirit never led anyone to observe or celebrate the birthday of the Messiah!