Jesus’ Celebration of Hanukkah
The Festival of Lights
For many people in the diaspora – both Jews celebrating Hanukkah and Gentiles observing this celebration – Hanukkah is all about dreidels and latkes. However, if you happen to be in Israel during Hanukkah, go to a children’s party in a kindergarten or elementary school. You would be amazed, as was I many years ago, that it is all about light and lights! Many Hanukkah celebrations begin in full darkness, then the light of a candle – the first Hanukkah candle – pierces the darkness, and then – more candles and more lights! It’s very beautiful and very impressive! One of the central songs sung during Hanukkah is called BANU CHOSHECH LEGARESH – “WE CAME TO DRIVE AWAY THE DARKNESS” – and this is indeed the overwhelming feeling one gets during these celebrations: The light came to overcome the darkness!
In this sense, one can’t miss the connection between Hanukkah and Christmas. that seems to me absolutely amazing about Christmas, is the fact that it happens in the darkest time of the year (at least, in the northern hemisphere). This is so beautiful and symbolic: In the world’s darkest hour, the light comes! And the same is true about Hanukkah: BANU CHOSHEKCH LEGARESH – Light comes into the world, and darkness cannot overcome it!
Jesus Celebrated Hanukkah
We read in the Gospel of John: And it was at Jerusalem the Feast of the Dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch. What is this winter “Feast of Dedication”? It’s not mentioned in Leviticus 23, where all the biblical feasts are described and their observance is commanded. So what did Jesus celebrate in the Temple?
Of course, John is referring to Hanukkah (Hebrew for dedication.) The story of Hanukkah is preserved in the books of the Maccabees. However, these books are not part of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), and therefore, surprisingly, we find the clearest mention of Hanukkah in the Bible, in the New Testament! Not only did Yeshua celebrate Hanukkah, according to the Gospel of John, but he observed it in the same Temple that had been miraculously rededicated by the Maccabees just a few generations earlier. In order to understand it, let’s turn to the history.
History of Hanukkah
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire. It happened in the 2nd century BCE – the intertestamental period – which is why Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Tanach. The Jewish people were then living under the oppression of King Antiochus IV and Hellenistic pagan practices. The ruling Syrian dynasty of the Seleucids required full assimilation in all aspects of life: language, arts, lifestyle – everything was to conform to the Greek way of life. Antiochus enacted a series of harsh decrees against the Jews. Jewish worship was forbidden; the scrolls of the Law were confiscated and burned; Sabbath rest, circumcision and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death. In 164 BCE, Antiochus even desecrated the Temple: the altars, the utensils, the golden Menorah were all defiled.
Antiochus’s men went from town to town and from village to village to force the inhabitants to worship pagan gods. One day they arrived in the village of Modiin where an old priest, Mattityahu, lived. There they built an altar and demanded that Mattityahu offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. Mattityahu replied, “I, my sons and my brothers will remain loyal to the covenant which our G?d made with our fathers!” After that, Mattityahu left the village of Modiin and fled, together with his sons, to the hills of Judea and all loyal and courageous Jews joined them. Thus, the uprising began. After Mattityahu’s death, his son Judah became leader. Judah was called “Maccabee” – a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Hashem, “Who is like You, O Yahweh?” – and therefore it is called the Maccabean Revolt. Realistically, the Maccabees had absolutely no chance of winning. The Syrian army consisted of more than 40,000 men – it was another David vs. Goliath scenario – but, as in the story of David, God performed a miracle, and after a series of battles, the war was won.
When the Maccabees, miraculously, recaptured the Temple, they had to cleanse and restore it. They entered the Temple and cleared it of the idols placed there by the Syrians. They wanted to light Menorah, as it is commanded in the Torah: Bring you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to cause the lamp to burn continually. However, according to the Talmud, they found only a single jar of undefiled oil, and that was only enough to last a single day. Taking a leap of faith, they relit the Menorah , and by a miracle of God, it continued to burn for eight days, till new oil was made available. In memory of this, Hanukkah, an eight-day celebration, was established. On each day, an additional branch of the nine branched Hanukkiah is lit with the shamash (“helper” candle), which sits on the middle branch.
The Light Shines in the darkness
This is the traditional story – but there is something more to be aware of. Not many people realize that the Maccabees had not won their independence when they proclaimed the Festival of Hanukkah. Antiochus was still their ruler, and Syrian troops still occupied Eretz Yisrael and even most of Jerusalem. The light of the first Hanukkah truly shone in the midst of the darkness! In this sense, the light of Hanukkah, shining in the darkness, prophetically foreshadowed this Light of the Messiah!
This reminds us of the words of John about Yeshua: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. According to the Gospels, the Light of Yeshua also came at a time of the darkness and foreign oppression; the hand of Rome was heavy upon Israel, the nation could hardly bear this oppressive yoke. No wonder everybody waited for a deliverer – hoping and believing the footsteps of this deliverer had already been heard! Thus, we may say that both celebrations, Hanukkah and Christmas, look to the Messiah, but from two different perspectives – like two olives on each side of the Menorah in the beautiful vision of Zechariah that is read in synagogues on the Sabbath of Hanukkah:
“I am looking, and there is a lampstand of solid gold with a bowl on top of it, and on the stand seven lamps with seven pipes to the seven lamps. 3 Two olive trees are by it, one at the right of the bowl and the other at its left.” 4 So I answered and spoke to the angel who talked with me, saying, “What are these, my lord?”
5 Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me:
‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’
Says the Lord of hosts.’ Zech. 2:4-6