Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication.
The festival is observed by lighting the candles of a candelabrum with nine branches, called a Hanukkah menorah (or hanukkiah). One branch is typically placed above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight candles. This unique candle is called the shamash (Hebrew: שמש, “attendant”). Each night, one additional candle is lit by the shamash until all eight candles are lit together on the final night of the holiday. Other Hanukkah festivities include playing dreidel and eating oil-based foods such as doughnuts and latkes. Since the 1970s, the worldwide Chabad Hasidic movement has initiated public menorah lightings in open public places in many countries.
The story of Hanukkah originated in Judea which was part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt until 200 BCE When King Antiochus III the Great of Syria defeated King Ptolemy V Epiphanes of Egypt at the Battle of Panium in 200BCE. Judea then became part of the Seleucid Empire of Syria. King Antiochus III the Great wanting to conciliate his new Jewish subjects guaranteed their right to “live according to their ancestral customs” and to continue to practice their religion in the Temple of Jerusalem However, in 175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the son of Antiochus III, invaded Judea, at the request of the sons of Tobias. The Tobiads, who led the Hellenizing Jewish faction in Jerusalem, were expelled to Syria around 170 BCE when the high priest Onias and his pro-Egyptian faction wrested control from them. The exiled Tobiads lobbied Antiochus IV Epiphanes to recapture Jerusalem.
When Antiochus IV Epiphanes recaptured Jerusalem, the Romans looted the Second Temple in Jerusalem and outlawed Judaism . In 167 BCE, Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. He banned brit milah (circumcision) and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the temple. Needless to say Antiochus’s actions provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattathias (Mattityahu), a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. It started with Mattathias killing first, a Jew who wanted to comply with Antiochus’s order to sacrifice to Zeus, and then a Greek official who was to enforce the government’s behest (1 Mac. 2, 24–25) Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”). By 166 BCE Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader
By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted to celebrate this event. Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, unadulterated and undefiled pure olive oil with the seal of the kohen gadol (high priest) was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. The story goes that one flask was found with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.
The books of the First and Second Maccabees, describe the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the menorah. These books are not part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) which came from the Palestinian canon; however, they were part of the Alexandrian canon which is also called the Septuagint (sometimes abbreviated LXX). Both books are included in the Old Testament used by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, since those churches consider the books deuterocanonical. They are not included in the Old Testament books in most Protestant Bibles since most Protestants consider the books apocryphal. Multiple references to Hanukkah are also made in the Mishna (Bikkurim 1:6, Rosh HaShanah 1:3, Taanit 2:10, Megillah 3:4 and 3:6, Moed Katan 3:9, and Bava Kama 6:6), though specific laws are not described. The miracle of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud, committed to writing about 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees.
The Gemara (Talmud), in tractate Shabbat, page 21b, focuses on Shabbat candles and moves to Hanukkah candles and says that after the forces of Antiochus IV had been driven from the Temple, the Maccabees discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, with enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a single day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days (the time it took to have new oil pressed and made ready.
The Talmud presents three options for celebrating Hanukkah: Either light one light each night per household, light one light each night for each member of the household or vary the number of lights each night. These lights were to be placed outside one’s door, on the opposite side of the mezuza, or in the window closest to the street except in times of danger. The purpose of this is to publicize the miracle. The blessings for Hanukkah lights are discussed in tractate Succah.
” Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. 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. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.”
The story of Hanukkah is also alluded to in the book of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. The eight-day rededication of the temple is described in 1 Maccabees 4:36–4:59, though the name of the festival and the miracle of the lights do not appear here. A story similar in character, and obviously older in date, is the one alluded to in 2 Maccabees 1:18–1:36 according to which the relighting of the altar fire by Nehemiah was due to a miracle which occurred on the 25th of Kislev, and which appears to be given as the reason for the selection of the same date for the rededication of the altar by Judah Maccabee. The above account in 2 Maccabees 1, as well as 2 2 Maccabees 1:9 portrays the feast as a delayed observation of the eight-day Feast of Booths (Sukkot)”; similarly 2 Maccabees 10:36 explains the length of the feast as “in the manner of the Feast of Booths”.
Another source is the Megillat Antiochus. This work (also known as “Megillat Benei Ḥashmonai”, “Megillat Hanukkah”, or “Megillat Yevanit”) is extant in both the Aramaic and Hebrew languages; the Hebrew version is a literal translation from the Aramaic original. Recent scholarship dates it to somewhere between the 2nd and 5th Centuries, probably in the 2nd century, with the Hebrew dating to the 7th century. It was published for the first time in Mantua in 1557. Saadia Gaon, who translated it into Arabic in the 9th century, ascribed it to the elders of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The Hebrew text with an English translation can be found in the Siddur of Philip Birnbaum.
The Scroll of Antiochus concludes with the following words:
“…After this, the sons of Israel went up to the Temple and rebuilt its gates and purified the Temple from the dead bodies and from the defilement. And they sought after pure olive oil to light the lamps therewith, but could not find any, except one bowl that was sealed with the signet ring of the High Priest from the days of Samuel the prophet and they knew that it was pure. There was in it enough oil to light the lamps therewith for one day, but the God of heaven whose name dwells there put therein his blessing and they were able to light from it eight days. Therefore, the sons of Ḥashmonai made this covenant and took upon themselves a solemn vow, they and the sons of Israel, all of them, to publish amongst the sons of Israel, to the end that they might observe these eight days of joy and honour, as the days of the feasts written in the book of the Law; even to light in them so as to make known to those who come after them that their God wrought for them salvation from heaven. In them, it is not permitted to mourn, neither to decree a fast on those days, and anyone who has a vow to perform, let him perform it.”