The Biblical Holiday of Hanukkah
Written by Robin Sampson   

Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah or Hanukah), is an annual festival of the Jews celebrated on eight successive days to honor the restoration of divine worship in the Temple after it had been defiled by heathens. The return of their religious liberty was to them as life from the dead and, in remembrance of it, they kept an annual holiday on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. Kislev is the third month of the Jewish calendar corresponding, approximately, to early December in the Gregorian calendar. Jesus kept this festival. The principal source for the story of Hanukkah is found in the Talmud.

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).

Hanukkah in Bible Times

Nearly twenty-two centuries ago, during the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the events took place that the Jews memorialize each year at Hanukah time: The Jewish people had returned to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian Exile, and had rebuilt the Holy Temple, but they remained subject to the reigning powers: first, the Persian Empire, then later, the conquering armies of Alexander the Great.

Alexander the Great was a kind and generous ruler to the Jews. He canceled the Jewish taxes during Sabbatical years, and even offered animals to be sacrificed on his behalf in the Temple. After the death of Alexander, his kingdom was divided among his generals. Judea was caught in the middle and ended up under the system of the Seleucid Dynasty, Greek kings who reigned from Syria.

The Jews Under Syrian Rule

A Syrian tyrant, Antiochus IV, was the new king who ruled Judea. He worshipped the Greek gods, but he did allow the Jews to worship YHWH. During the years of Greek power, many Jews started to embrace the Greek culture and its Hellenistic, pagan way of life. These Jewish Hellenists helped Antiochus’s goal to abolish every trace of the Jewish religion.

Desecrated the Temple

Eventually, King Antiochus decided to go into Jerusalem and take the treasures in the temple and forbid the Jews from keeping their holy traditions, such as the Sabbath, kosher laws, studying their holy books, and the practice of circumcision. To prove his point he desecrated the Holy Altar by sacrificing a forbidden, unclean pig on it. The Temple was dedicated to the worship of Zeus Olympus. An altar to Zeus was set up on the high altar. The Jews were forced to bow before it under penalty of death. The Holy Temple was invaded, desecrated, and pillaged of all its treasures. Many innocent people were massacred, and the survivors were heavily taxed. Antiochus went so far as to proclaim himself a god, taking the name Epiphanes—God manifest.

Flavius Josephus, a renowned historian who lived at the time of the Apostles recorded the horrifying event of that time in this way: (Antiquities of the Jews Book 12, Chapter 5) And when the king had built an idol altar upon God’s Altar, he slew swine upon it, and so offered a sacrifice neither according to the law, nor the Jewish religious worship in that country. He also compelled them to forsake the worship which they paid their own God, and to adore those whom he took to be gods; and made them build temples, and raise idol altars, in every city and village, and offer swine upon them every day (254). He also commanded them not to circumcise their sons, and threatened to punish any that should be found to have transgressed his injunction. He also appointed overseers, who should compel them to do what he commanded (255). And indeed many Jews there were who complied with the king’s commands either voluntarily, or out of fear of the penalty that was denounced; but the best men, and those of the noblest souls, did not regard him, but did pay a greater respect to the customs of their country than concern as to the punishment which he threatened to the disobedient; on which account they every day underwent great miseries and bitter torments (256). For they were whipped with rods and their bodies were torn to pieces, and were crucified while they were still alive and breathed: they also strangled those women and their sons whom they had circumcised, as the king had appointed, hanging their sons about their necks as they were upon the crosses. And if there were any sacred book of the law found, it was destroyed; and those with whom they were found miserably perished also.

A Wicked High Priest

Some Jews drifted into the Greek Ways, changed their names from their Hebrew names, and followed the Greek “modern” practices, giving up the “old” ways of their ancestors. One hellenized Jew’s Hebrew name was Joshua, but he changed it to the Greek name Jason. He offered King Antiochus a bribe so he could take over the position of the High Priest.

The “High Priest” Jason constructed a gymnasium near the Temple, and demoralized his fellow Jews with pagan customs and licentious behavior.
Another Hellinized Jew came along and offered a bigger bribe and Jason was replaced. Jason then gathered an army and attacked Menelaus in the Holy City, slaughtering many of the Jews. Antiochus interpreted this civil squabble as a revolt against his throne, and sent his armies into Jerusalem, plundering the Temple and murdering tens of thousands of Jews. Altars were erected with statues of the Greek gods and goddesses in every city and town. Soldiers forced Jews to make offerings, to eat forbidden foods, and to engage in other immoral acts.


Many other Jews resisted, and refused to follow Greek practices, and would not bow down to the Greek’s pagan idols. The Greeks tried to get Jews to abandon the Torah and commandments, but God was in charge. Many times God had fought the Jewish battles, against all odds, delivering the evil to the righteous and the outnumbered. God helped the Jews to organize the common people, farmers, workers, and servants, and they began to fight the Syrian persecutors.

The Maccabees

This small group of Hasmoneans, under the leadership of Judas Maccabee, employed guerrilla warfare and drove the Syrians out. The Maccabees regained control of the Holy Temple, and began the task of purifying it. The altar which had been defiled by the sacrifice of a pig upon it was torn down and rebuilt. All new holy vessels were crafted. A date for the rededication of the Temple was set–the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which occurs approximately in the Roman month of December (A.T.O.M. 1995).

Taking unhewn stones, as the law commands, they built a new altar on the model of the previous one. They rebuilt the Temple and restored its interior, and consecrated the Temple courts. They renewed the sacred vessels and the lampstand, and brought the altar of incense and the table into the Temple. They burnt incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lamp-stand to shine within the Temple. They decorated the front of the Temple with golden wreaths and ornamental shields. They renewed the gates and the priest’s rooms, and fitted them with doors. When they had put the Bread of the Presence on the table and hung the curtains, all their work was completed (Killian 1996). The Temple was then rededicated to God with festivities that lasted eight days.

The Miracle

When the Jews cleaned out the temple idols, they found only one small cruse of oil with only enough oil for one day to light their holy lamps. They decided to light the Menorah (the Temple candelabra) even with the small amount of oil. To everyone’s amazement the menorah miraculously burned for eight days until new oil was available!


The congregation of Israel decreed that the rededication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness at the same season each year, for eight days, beginning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. The light of the menorah is the symbol of the light of Yahweh. The fact that the light burned even when no supply was left is a perfect symbol of the eternity of God’s Word. The heart of the celebration, is not only the Rabbis retelling of the saga of revolt and renewal, but also the retelling of the divine experience of the miracle of the oil.

Jewish Customs of Hanukkah

Jewish tradition sought to embellish these days of celebration. It is the practice to have festive meals for the eight days, and in addition to Latkes, jelly doughnuts fried in oil became popular. (Both symbolize the miracle of the oil.) Other popular sources of joy are the Hanukkah gifts and Hanukkah gelt (money.) The major ritual ceremony of the holiday is the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah. The eight days are marked by prayers of thanksgiving, special songs of praise (for the miracles and redemption), the Shmoneh Esrei (the central silent prayer) three times a day, and grace after meals.

Lighting the Candles

Some Jews light one candle the first night and add one additional light every subsequent night. Others Jews start with all eight candles lit and decrease one every night.
Since the object of the lighting is to publicize the miracle, the candles are usually placed near windows: to remind others of the holiday and the redemption. It is customary to light the candles right after sundown. After the destruction of the temple the menorah became the most important Jewish pictorial motif: what had been a holy implement became the symbol of Judaism. The main prophetic reading of Hanukkah is the prophecy of Zechariah, which ends, “…Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).


A Hallel is a song of praise celebrating God’s mighty acts on behalf of His Chosen People, the nation of Israel. The complete text of the song is contained in Psalms 115 through 118. The complete HALLEL is recited in the morning service throughout the eight days of Chanukah.

Al Hanisim

The prayer of “Al Hanisim,” in which we give thanks to God for all the miracles of Chanukah, is recited in the Shmone Esrei (Amidah) as well as in the Birkat Hamazon (grace after meal) each day of Chanukah.

Reading the Torah

The Torah is read each day of Chanukah, specifically, the story of the dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert and the special gifts donated by the leaders of each of the twelve tribes of Israel in connection with the dedication. This Torah portion is read on Chanukah because the Tabernacle was completed on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the same day in which the miracle of Chanukah took place close to one thousand years later.

Spinning the Dreidel

Those who would like to quickly part with their gelt play the game of Dreidel (spinning top). On the Dreidel are Hebrew letters Nune, Gimel, Shin, and Hay. On the surface, those letters stand for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham - A great miracle happened there” Each player puts the same amount of something— nuts, raisins, pennies, or chocolate coins in the middle, which is called “the pot”. Play proceeds clockwise around the circle of players. Each player takes a turn spinning the Dreidel. Whatever the Dreidel lands on decides what you are to do.

HAY: you get half of the pot.
GIMEL: you get ALL of the pot.
NUNE: you get nothing.
SHIN: you must put 1 (nut, or raising, or penny, etc.) in the pot.

Whoever has the most in the end wins! The Rabbis are opposed to gambling games and it became customary to give any Dreidel money to charity.

The Messiah in Hanukkah

The Torah did not require Jews to be at the Temple in Jerusalem, as this was not one of the pilgrimage festivals. Every one observed it in his own place, not as a holy time. Yeshua was there that He might improve those eight days of holiday for good purposes.

Yeshua walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch when the Sadduciens asked him “How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Messiah tell us.” They pretended to want to know the truth, as if they were ready to embrace it; but it was not their intention. Yeshua answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me (John 10:25-27). He had told them, and they believed not; why then should they be told again, merely to gratify their curiosity?


Hanukkah’s theme is of a miracle. During Hanukkah Yeshua spoke of His miracles: If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him (John 10:37-38). Yeshua wanted the people of his day to see His miracles and believe in Him as a result. His miracles point to his divine and messianic identity. In this way Yeshua personifies the message of Hanukkah: God actively involved in the affairs of his people. Hanukkah reminds us that God is a God of miracles, not just of concept and religious ideals. He has broken through into human history and continues to do so today. All of us who know Yeshua can speak of God’s working in our lives (Gilman 1995).

Yeshua is the Light of the World

Yeshua preached three sermons in which he declared Himself the “light of the world,” and all three could have been during Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. (It is not clear from the text when this incident happened, but it was some time between the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah); both of these celebrations focused on light).

Then Yeshua said unto them, Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth. While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light. These things spake Yeshua, and departed, and did hide himself from them (John 12:35-36).

Just before Yeshua announced that He was the Light of the world, Yeshua had shone upon the conscience of those who accused the adulteress. Read the story in John Chapter 8. John also records Yeshua healing a blind man (John 9:1-12) at about the same time (John 8:12 and John 9:5) that Yeshua declared himself to be the Light of the world.

When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing (John 9:5-7).
End Times

The story of Hanukkah can be compared with end-time happenings described in the books of Revelation and Daniel. Antiochus is a type of the antichrist. Just as happened under the rule of Antiochus, Daniel prophesied in Daniel 9:27 And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate.

The same powers promoted by Antiochus are in the world today. Worldwide immorality, and idolatry are the norm. We must come out and be separate. And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. The deceiver stands waiting to devour in this present culture (2 Cor. 6:16-17).

Was Yeshua Conceived on Hanukkah?

Many believe that our Messiah, the “light of the world,” was conceived on the festival of lights—Hanukkah. The Bible does not specifically say the date of Yeshua’s birth. It was not during the winter months because the sheep were in the pasture (Luke 2:8). A study of the time of the conception of John the Immerser reveals he was conceived about Sivan 30, the eleventh week (Luke 1:8-13, 24). Adding forty weeks, for a normal pregnancy reveals that John the Immerser was born on or about Passover (Nisan 14). Six months after John’s conception, Miriam conceived Yeshua (Luke 1:26-33); therefore Yeshua would have been conceived six months after Sivan 30 in the month of Kislev—Hanukkah. Was the “light of the world,” conceived on the festival of lights? Starting at Hanukah, which begins on Kislev 25 and continues for eight days, and counting through the nine months of Miriam’s pregnancy, one arrives at the approximate time of the birth of Yeshua at the Festival of Tabernacles.

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