WHAT’S WITH HANUKKAH?
I have compiled this Q&A to respond to questions I have been asked over the years. Also included are queries that I believe others would have liked to ask, had they not been concerned about either offending or being offended.
First of all, is it Hanukkah or Chanukah? And what does Hanukkah mean, or is it just a name?
Hanukkah/Chanukah is the English representation of a Hebrew word, therefore it is not unusual to see various phonetic spellings. Hanukkah means “dedication.”
Hanukkah? Isn’t that a Jewish holiday? Since you are celebrating it, does it imply that you are Jewish or have converted to Judaism?
I am probably not Jewish. I say “probably” because, with the Jewish/Israeli nation having been under constant attack from the time of the Nation’s inception, records have many times been destroyed. It is, however, in this day and age possible to undergo DNA testing to make this determination. Although I may indeed submit a DNA sample to a genealogy site in the future, I do not personally feel it would change anything significant for me, regardless of the result. Since I have chosen to come under the banner of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I believe the Bible reveals that I have been “grafted in” to Israel and now reap the benefits as well as the responsibilities of one who was native born. This is, of course, only speaking in a spiritual sense. The only ways, of which I am aware, to become Israeli citizens would be to either 1) Prove your heritage through your mother’s line, or be married to someone who could do this, or 2) Fully and formally convert to Judaism.
And so now to address the second part of the above question – “have you converted to Judaism?” I have not converted, nor would I do so. My significant study over the last 15 years has done nothing to dissuade me about the identity and function of Yeshua (Hebrew name for Jesus), and in fact has done the opposite. As part of the conversion process, it would be necessary to deny Jesus. I am aware that many see no problem in denying Jesus, citing that Jesus is not His true Hebrew name. They also point out (and I believe rightly so), that our Western notion of Who Yeshua is, holds little resemblance to the facts that Jesus/Yeshua was/is a Jew who followed the Scripture completely, while never relinquishing His Jewishness. They therefore see no difficulty with harboring a secret belief in Yeshua while denying Jesus to make the conversion board happy. Since I view this as merely semantics, I have made the decision not to go in this direction.
Isn’t Hanukkah just the Jewish Christmas?
No, Hanukkah has nothing in common with Christmas, other than both occurring at the end of the year on our Western calendar. Hanukkah falls out sometime in November or December on our Western calendar, and has indeed sometimes included December 25th in the 8 day celebration. The dates of Hanukkah are determined by the Hebrew/Jewish calendar, which is the lunar/solar calendar outlined in Scripture, while the Western World adheres to a Gregorian solar calendar. This accounts for the varying dates on the Western calendar upon which Hanukkah falls.
Hanukkah is an 8 day civil holiday which commemorates a great and miraculous military victory around 167 BC; a true David and Goliath story. Briefly summarized, the Jewish people were again being oppressed (this time by the Seleucids), and their Temple had been taken from them. No longer were there gatherings of the Jewish faithful. The light of the Temple menorah no longer shone brightly in the darkness as a beacon. In fact, the current ruling nation had defiled the temple, placing a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies and slaughtering pigs on the altar, both of which were not only offensive, but abominable in the sight of God. Horrific things were perpetrated upon the people of God who refused to bow to Zeus, slaughter pigs on the altar, or to denounce their God. Babies were slaughtered. Mothers were forced to look on as their children were fried in huge frying pans fashioned for this specific purpose. People were tarred, suspended from porticos, and ignited like lights. It was a terrible time. Eventually, a ragtag group of followers of the One True God, led by a priest by the name of Mattathias, fled into the surrounding mountains to hide and fight guerilla warfare. Eventually, Mattathias’ brother, Judas, took a leading role and became known as Judas Maccabeus (the Hammer). But the mighty Egyptian army would hunt them down on the backs of elephants. Miraculously, this band of perhaps 300 men, defeated the mighty Egyptian army and retook the Temple. They cleansed the House of God and the light of the menorah again beckened the people to come to the place the Most High had chosen to place His name. Look up the story of the Maccabees for much more on this very interesting time in history.
That being said, it is true, that in Modern times, many secular families have tried to compete with Christmas by having “Hanukkah bushes,” giving presents, etc.
Why eight days and why do you light the menorah?
Now, this part is tradition. I am not sure it is true. I am not certain it is not true. In any case, this is where some of the Hanukkah traditions have had their genesis. The story is told that when the Jewish people retook the temple, they were only able to locate one vial of purified olive oil used to light the Temple Menorah. (side note – The temple Menorah was six-branched, the design being laid out in great detail in the Scriptures – see Exodus 25). It was this Temple menorah that the people desired to again have shine forth from the reclaimed Temple. But the people were in a quandary. God had specifically instructed Moses to order that the temple menorah be lit continuously, and the lights were not to be allowed to go out. One thing that was never to be allowed in the temple was darkness. But the single vial of oil found, would only keep the lamp lit for one day, and eight days would be required to produce more. What should they do? Should they wait for eight days until they could light it and keep it lit? Or should they light it for the one day to encourage the people that light again would come from the Temple, allow it to burn out, and restart again once oil was available? Tradition says that the decision was made to light the menorah as an encouragement for the people; the Temple was once again in their hands! Imagine their shock when the priests approached the menorah each day and found that the oil had not been consumed. This was indeed a miracle…the miracle of the oil! While this story cannot be proved, it would not be the only time God performed a miracle involving sustaining oil. (See 2 Kings 4:1-7).
So…the Hanukkah menorah (also called hanukkiah), commemorates the retaking and rededication of the Temple, the light returning to the Temple, and the miracle of the 8 days of oil.
Well, I’m confused. You have been talking about 8 days, and 8 days of oil, but the Hanukkah menorahs that I see have NINE candles. What’s the deal?
Most modern Hanukkah menorahs do have nine branches with one being elevated above the rest. Some do not have candles at all, but rather oil-filled bowls, into which wicks have been placed. In any case, the meaning of the eight lights is obvious, commemorating the eight days the Temple menorah miraculously stayed lit without oil. But what about the ninth? This ninth branch is called the shamash (servant) candle. It is the first candle lit each night and its only purpose is to be used to light the remaining eight candles. In a believer’s home, the symbolism is quite provocative as we see our “Servant Light of the World” (Yeshua) being used to light the others around Him.
Do you light all of the candles every night?
No. It is progressive. The only candle lit every night is the servant (shamash) candle. The first night of Hanukkah, we light the Shamash and the first candle (the one on the far right). We also sing a song while lighting. In an Orthodox Jewish home, this would be a Hebrew blessing. In my home, it is just a children’s song that we have been using for each of the 16 years we have celebrated Hanukkah. “Candles, candles burning bright on this ________- (2nd, etc) Hanukkah night. First we light the Shamash, then we light. (one…two… – count each day of Hanukkah) “two” candles burning on the second night of Hanukkah, in my menorrhea so bright.” As with most instances in which candles are lit to commemorate Jewish holidays (such as Sabbath), the candles are allowed to burn themselves out.
But aren’t you a Christian? Or…. ARE you still a Christian?
I am still a strong believer in Yeshua as son of God, as Messiah, and as Savior/Redeemer. I find myself not aligning with mainstream Christianity in some areas regarding my opportunity and responsibility to fully follow God’s good, perfect, and holy teachings and instructions to the best of my ability. I also believe that Yeshua was a Jew and will return as a Jew, that the church has not replaced Israel, and that we have missed incredible opportunities to learn through His good, perfect, and eternal Torah (teachings and instructions – erroneously translated as “law.”) I believe that the Redeemed follow the Law/Torah not in order to be “saved”, but because they ARE saved.
But if you believe in Jesus, why wouldn’t you celebrate His birth instead of Hanukkah? And Hanukkah is not in the Bible, right?
One thing that surprised me as I began studying the Hebrew roots of our Christian faith, is the fact that nowhere in the Bible are we instructed to celebrate His birth. Instead, we are instructed to commemorate His death and resurrection (Passover). Yes, of course, the wise men did come bearing gifts, possibly two years after His birth, however that is NOT how gift-giving became associated with Christmas. And, also surprisingly, there is no mention or evidence of others (including the disciples) commemorating His birth, either during his life on earth or after his resurrection and ascension. Of course there is nothing WRONG with commemorating His birth, and I choose to do so at a season that is certainly more in line with the time He really was born, during the feast of tabernacles, in the fall. (There are those who believe that His birth took place during the spring, which would make it in the season of Passover). Just one of the proofs that His birth was not in December, is the fact that Scripture mentions that shepherds were shepherding their flocks in the fields. If His birth was indeed in late December, one would have been hard pressed to find even one sheep in the fields, as they would have been brought in for the winter. The main reason I choose to separate myself from the December 25th celebration has more to do with how and why that date was chosen (hint – it had been celebrated for hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus), and the true meaning of the traditions that have come to be associated with Christmas.
For a really good secular study on the origin of Christmas, The History Channel has a very good documentary that is both scholarly and interesting, entitled Christmas Unwrapped. It can be found on YouTube. Here is the link.
If you choose to watch the documentary, you may then return with “But that’s NOT what it means to me/us!”
And I wholeheartedly agree. That is certainly not what it meant to me for all of the years I celebrated it either, nor was I even aware of its history. And, by the way, I am NOT offended by your choice to celebrate Christmas, at all. I am thankful that we do each have a choice. One thing I have discovered throughout my 61 year journey on this earth thus far is… there is only one person in this world I can or should be trying to change…myself. And I am a FULL TIME job without trying to police anyone else! I also believe that when I meet my Master, He may very well hold out a list of the way I have lived my life and say something like. “ Wow, Jacquetta, you really GOT the lessons I was trying to teach you in these areas. HOWEVER, in these areas, Jacquetta – WHAT were you THINKING! “ : )
I really pray that at that time I will not start arguing with Him “but this person said…or that person said… or I thought….” but, instead, will fall at His feet and say “Teach me Master.” So, let’s say we find out I am wrong about this and there is nothing offensive to Him about celebrating a holiday meant to honor the sun god. However, I THOUGHT it was offensive to Him, and did it anyway. Then (even though it really wasn’t wrong), it would be sin for me, because I thought it was, and made the conscious choice to do it anyway. My root intention was to rebel against a Holy God who reads not only actions but hearts.
So, that is an explanation of how I approach it and I certainly am not offended if you make a different choice.
But Hanukkah is not in the Bible, right?
Well, actually, it is. Scripture seems to indicate that Jesus/Yeshua did indeed celebrate Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication.
Joh 10:22 At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon.
It would be unlikely that Jesus/Yeshua would travel from the Galilee to Jerusalem in the winter if not for a special occasion. AND it is also notable that God made certain that we would know that He was there during the Festival of Lights/Feast of Dedication by having that detail written into Scripture.
Okay, Jacquetta, but tell the truth. Wasn’t it hard to give up Christmas? I mean, don’t you really miss it?
Actually, it was shockingly easy! Not at all what I thought it would be! We learned about the origins of Christmas probably about September of 2002. That year, we did exchange gifts with our families as we were still trying to figure things out. After that, we let our families know we were going in a different direction and were a Christmas free zone!
I’ll tell you the things I miss and the things I am thankful to not have a part in.
I MISS gathering with my wonderful family and seeing the looks on their faces when they opened the gift that I had spent time choosing specifically for them. I miss that. I miss the fun with the children and the laughing around the table. For a time, we tried to transfer the gift giving to Thanksgiving, which for years had been held at our house. I so wanted a time that I could let them each know how much I love and treasure them. To me, Thanksgiving seemed like the perfect time. However, it did not turn out the way I had hoped. My family felt they should give me Hanukkah gifts at that time also and of course, they felt conflicted because they are not celebrating Hanukkah. And I understood. They also felt it was confusing to the children, so we let it drop. I miss that.
I DON’T MISS the stress of the season. I don’t miss the stress of trying to find that special gift for each person and then spending months after Christmas paying for it. I don’t miss rearranging my house for the decorations and then having to do it in reverse a few weeks later. Strangely, I am now so removed from the stress of the season that I barely notice the Christmas fare going up in the stores.
A couple of years before I would ever hear of Hebrew Roots or would have seen Christmas Unwrapped, I began to take account of how the Christmas season was spent in our home. How much was REALLY spent honoring the birth of the Savior? All of the commercialism was getting to me. I actually sat down and did an accounting, starting the day after Thanksgiving and going to the day after Christmas. How much of my time (and I think I was typical of many if not most Christians), was spent with the supposed “Reason for the Season?” I sang in the choir at church and there was always a Christmas Cantata. I was very generous in counting my hours at rehearsals and during the program. I counted time spent studying the birth of Jesus, both in church and out. And I counted every church service during that season. I only considered “waking hours.” My findings were discouraging. There was by FAR, more time spent shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, and stressing than anything that could truly be counted as worship. Far less than 10% was spent in that endeavor. That year, we did not put up a tree. Leo cut two rough 2×4’s, one about 6 or 7 feet in length, and the other about 4 feet long. He fashioned them into a cross, around which I draped a purple cloth and a single strand of white lights. It was my attempt to refocus our house on what I then would have described as the reason for the season. Alas, it still fell far short.
I STILL LOVE Christmas music, Christmas carols, and Christmas movies, most of which have NOTHING to do with the birth of the Christ-child, but are just good family movies. I still think Christmas lights are beautiful. I still have wonderful memories of Christmas when I was a child and when Jessica was a child and all points in between. I didn’t delete those warm memories when I stopped celebrating Christmas.
WHAT DOES HANUKKAH LOOK LIKE IN A TYPICAL HOME?
I’m not sure I could tell you that. We are not typical. In my home, I will usually have a Hanukkah party at some point during the eight day celebration. My tables will be decorated in blue, white, and silver. There will be LOTS of candles burning to commemorate the Festival of Lights; one on each step up the stairway and throughout the house. Gelt (gold foil wrapped chocolate coins) will be scattered on the tables and small wooden dreidels will also be part of the décor. My friends will bring their Hanukkiahs and we will light them together. It is a beautiful sight. We will sing traditional songs like The Dreidel Song, Maoz Tzur (sung to the tune of Rock of Ages), and others. We will spin dreidels and win gelt in the process of the game. (My 90-year old friend, Vernon, loves the game and will often win – he also loves the gelt : )) We may even play Hanukkah Madlib. We will eat latkes (potato pancakes) along with applesauce and sour cream, and sufganiyot (jelly filled donuts). These are traditions that have developed across the years; the latkes and sufganiyot being cooked in the oil that the season memoralizes, the candles representing the light returning to the temple, and the dreidel…hmmmm, I should tell you the story of the dreidel.
Dreidels are a sort of four-sided top, with a Hebrew letter on each side. The letters form an acronym. Nes, gadol, hiyah, sham…. OR Nes, gadol, hiyah, po…depending upon where you live. REALLY? Really. Nes gadol hiyah sham means “A great miracle happened there” referring to the miracle of reclaiming the temple from the mighty enemy army…and the miracle of the oil. Nes gadol hiyah po means “A great miracle happened HERE.” You will find these dreidels only in Israel. Here is the story of the dreidel.
Throughout the many times the Jews have been oppressed and enslaved, there runs a common thread. The first thing that is taken from them is their Scriptures (Torah – the first five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy.) Next they are forbidden to keep Sabbath, they are forbidden to circumcise their baby boys, and they are also deprived of their kosher diet. Remove these things, and you remove the identity and unity of the people of Israel. But the Jews have always tried to keep their faith and their heritage alive. They would hide Torah scrolls and teach their children in secret. In one period of history, they did this while employing a dreidel. They would have Torah scrolls unfurled on the ground teaching, and if someone approached, they would spin tops atop the scroll, thereby disguising it as a game mat.. Thus, we have the game of dreidel as part of our Hanukkah celebrations.
Well, this has been a brief overview of the holiday of Hanukkah. I hope it has been interesting and that I have covered some of your questions. If you have others, feel free to ask ,and I will attempt an answer. I leave you with a link to some fun Hanukkah parodies
Chag Sameach Hanukkah! (Happy Holiday of Hanukkah)