Hanukkah - The Jewish Festival of Lights
Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights, and it is held to commemorate the rededication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. This happened in BC165. 'Hanukkah' is the Jewish word (sometimes translated as 'Chanukah') for 'dedication'. Hanukkah lasts for eight days, and begins on the 25th of Kivlev, the month in the Jewish calendar that can occur from late November to late December. The dates vary from year to year because the Jewish calendar is lunar (i.e. it uses the moon for its dates).
During Hanukkah, on each of the eight nights, a candle is lit in a special menorah (candelabra) called a 'hanukkiyah'. There are eight main branches which hold the mitzvah-candles. There is a special ninth candle called the 'shammash'*, or servant candle, which remains lit and is used to light the other candles. The shammash* is placed on the ninth branch in the center of the other candles, and has a higher position. On the first night one candle is lit, and on every successive night an additional candle is lit, so that on the eighth and final night of the festival, all candles are lit. Traditionally they are lit from left to right. A special blessing, thanking God, is said before or after lighting the candles, and a special Jewish hymn is often sung. The menorah is put in the front windows of houses, so people passing can see the lights and remember the story of Hanukkah. Most Jewish families and households have a special menorah, and celebrate Hanukkah. *(or 'shamash')
The Hanukkah menorah varies from the normal religious menorah which was commanded in Exodus 25v31-40 in having nine shaft and branches instead of seven. The basic purpose and significance of the menorah is the giving of light. The prophecy in Isaiah 49v6 of Jesus Christ who would extend the light of truth to all nations is quoted as a commission in Acts 13v47, and therefore this may legitimately be applied to all believers. Jesus is "the light of the world" - John 9v5 - and He made this application to His disciples in Matthew 5v14-16 - link to 'signs' - the 6th.
Hanukkah is also a time for giving and receiving presents, and gifts are often exchanged. Games are played during the time of Hanukkah, including 'dreidel' or 'dreydel' (Yiddish) or 'sivivon' (Hebrew). This game uses a four sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. The four letters are the first letters* of the phrase 'Nes Gadol Hayah Sham'- which means 'A great miracle happened there' (in Israel, 'there' is changed to 'here' so it's 'Nes Gadol Hayah Po'). *the numerical values of these Hebrew letters are as follows: nun=50,gimmel=3,hey=5,shin=300 - total=358, which is the numerical value of the Hebrew word for 'Messiah'...those playing 'dreidel' make this association with their own concept of the coming of Messiah - for details concerning a significant prophecy of the true Messiah, including His past and future work, link to Bible - page 2.
The History of Hanukkah
About 200 BC Israel was a state in the Seleucid Empire (an empire ruled under Greek law) which was ruled by the King of Syria. However, the people were allowed to follow their own religion and practices. In BC175, Antiochus IV came to power, who also called himself Antiochus Epiphanes (='Antiochus the visible god'). Antiochus wanted all of the empire to follow Greek ways of life, and the Greek religion with all of its gods. Some of the Jews agreed with him, but most wanted to stay Jewish.
The brother of the Jewish high priest was influenced by Grecian customs. He bribed Antiochus so that he could become the new High Priest instead of his brother, and then he had his brother killed. Three years later another man bribed Antiochus to let him become the High Priest. He stole some of the objects made of gold that were used in the Jewish Temple to finance his evil.
Antiochus used violence towards Jerusalem and the Jewish people. He ordered houses to be burned down, and tens of thousands of Jews were killed or put into slavery. Antiochus then went on to attack the Jewish Temple, the most important building in Israel to the Jews. The Syrian soldiers took all of the treasures out of the temple, and on 15 Kivlev BC168 Antiochus put up a statue of the Greek god Zeus (which had the face of Antiochus) in the centre of the Jewish Temple. Then on 25 Kivlev he desecrated the most holy place in the Temple, and destroyed the Jewish holy scrolls.
Antiochus then banned the Jewish faith & religion, and made the Temple into a shrine to Zeus. Any person practicing Judaism was punished with death. Many Jews were killed because of their faith. Soon afterwards a Jewish rebellion started.
The Maccabean Revolt
It began when a former Jewish Priest, named Mattathias, was ordered to make an offering to Zeus in his village. He refused to do so, and the revolt began. His sons joined him. Mattathias was old, and died soon after this, but his son Judah then took control of the rebellion. Judah's nickname was 'Maccabee', which is derived from the Hebrew word for 'hammer'. He and his troops lived in caves and fought a guerilla war for three years, after which they fought the Syrians in open battle and defeated them.
When they got back to Jerusalem, the Temple was in ruins, and the statue of Zeus/Antiochus was still standing. They destroyed it and cleansed the Temple. They rebuilt the Jewish altar, and on 25 Kivlev 165 BC, exactly three years after the above desecration, the altar and Temple were rededicated to God.
There are several theories about why Hanukkah is celebrated over eight nights (which find expression in the eight candles). One legend says that when Judah and his followers went into the Temple, there was only enough oil to burn for one night, but that it burned for eight nights. Another story says that they found eight iron spears, and put candles on them, and used them for lighting in the Temple. These ideas however are not found in the record of 1 Maccabees 4:49-59. As a matter of interest, the number '8' in Scripture has the meaning of a new beginning, and ultimately perfection - link to 'the Lord's day' - 8th Vision. It is therefore appropriate to Hanukkah.
NOTE 1: The Maccabean revolt, and the preceding and the following events, were minutely foretold in Daniel ch.11. John Thomas has written a full exposition in 'Elpis Israel' Part Third 'THE KINGDOMS OF THE WORLD IN THEIR RELATION TO THE KINGDOM OF GOD'. Please refer to this invaluable treatise for a fuller understanding of these historical events, which are still important today. Reference to Hanukkah appears once in the New Testament. See John 10v22,23 - "And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch". The Greek word translated "dedication" has the meaning of "renewal", and this refers to the re-dedication and renewal of the Maccabeans as recorded above.
NOTE 2: It is ironical that some confuse 'Hanukkah' with the pagan festival of 'Christ-Mass', which is celebrated on the supposed "birthday" (re-birth) of the pagan sun-god. The deliverance remembered during 'Hanukkah' includes the destruction of the statue of the Greek god Zeus. This pagan deity has been connected with the worship of the sun. And so the purpose of 'Hanukkah' is totally opposed to the pagan feast dressed up as "Christian", which is kept on the 25th of December. This pagan feast will soon be eliminated from the face of the earth, together with all of its devotees - see 'the last "christ-mass"' for more details of how this will be accomplished. And to understand future events as pre-figured by the feasts of Israel, link to 'jubilee' & 'feasts'.