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Hanukkah is a Jewish festival that celebrates the rededication of the Jerusalem temple, following its profanation by the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV, by the Maccabees.


Hanukkah, a term from the Hebrew term for “to dedicate,” is an annual Jewish festival in late November/early December (on the Hebrew, lunar calendar, the 25th of Kislev to the 2nd of Tevet). The festival commemorates the purification and rededication of the Jerusalem temple by Judah, nicknamed “Maccabee” (likely from the Aramaic for “hammer”) and his followers in 164 BCE.

Why did Judah Maccabee rededicate the Jerusalem temple?

Three years earlier, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes had forbidden Jewish practices such as circumcision and dietary regulations, ended the temple’s traditional sacrifices, dedicated the building to the Greek god Zeus, and sacrificed a pig on the altar (what 1Macc 1:54 calls the “desolating sacrilege”). These actions were met with widespread Jewish resistance and then a militant uprising. Defeating the Seleucid forces, Judah seized control of the temple precinct on the 25th of Kislev (allegedly, the day on which Antiochus had desecrated its altar three years earlier).

Once in control of the temple, Judah removed the desecrated altar and dedicated a new one. In joyous response, the people initiated an eight-day festival modeled on the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), an annual early fall pilgrimage celebration whose observance had been interrupted by Antiochus’s outrages. The new celebration was not originally called Hanukkah but “Tabernacles of the month of Kislev” (2Macc 1:9). The decision to make the new holiday a “second Sukkot” may have been dictated not only by the chronological proximity of the two festivals but also by their thematic resemblance. Sukkot recalled the temporary dwellings (“booths” or “tabernacles”) in which Israel lived during their journey from Egypt to the promised land. This journey motif was adapted into the new celebration of God’s providential care in “making a good way to the purification of his place” (2Macc 10:7). The Mishnah (second century CE) first attests use of the name Hanukkah.

Why is Hanukkah called the “Festival of Lights?”

The earliest descriptions of Hanukkah are found in the late second century BCE (1Macc 4:54-58 and 2Macc 10:7). These narratives mention songs of thanksgiving sung to instrumental accompaniment and annual festal processions in which the people bore palm fronds and wands wreathed with ivy (hints of this practice can be found in Jdt 15, and the book of Judith is likely based on the Hanukkah story; present-day Hanukkah traditions, such as eating cheese, date to early medieval Jewish exegesis of Judith). Second Maccabees emphasizes that this celebration was for “the whole Jewish people” (2Macc 10:8)—not just those living in Judea. A pair of letters prefixed to the beginning of 2 Maccabees indicates that the Judean Jews appealed to fellow Jews in Egypt to take part in the festival as marking a world-historical event.

Hanukkah’s observance eventually came to be associated with the lighting of oil lamps and later, candles. In the first century CE, Josephus refers to Hanukkah as the “Festival of Lights,” because of the new hope the temple’s purification gave the Jews (Jewish Antiquities 12.325). The Talmud connects the practice of lighting candles with a legend about Judah finding just enough sacred oil to keep the seven-branched lampstand in the temple, called the menorah (Hebrew for “lamp”), burning for a single day, but that God miraculously kept it alight for eight days (b. Shabbat 21b). Thus, in rabbinic Judaism the Maccabean military victory was gradually eclipsed by a focus on piety and miracle. The Hanukkah menorah or “hanukkiah,” which Jews light on Hanukkah to this day, has nine branches: one for each of the eight days, and a ninth from which the other eight are lit. Customs such as eating potato pancakes fried in oil (Yiddish: “latkes”) and jelly-filled fried donuts (Hebrew: “sufganiyot”) and spinning tops called dreidels, date to the postrabbinic period.

Why is a Jewish festival not in the Jewish Bible (Tanakh)?

The story of Hanukkah appears in the books of the Maccabees, texts that are not part of the Jewish canon. The books of Maccabees are, however, included in the Septuagint and are canonical for Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians.

  • seeman-chris

    Chris Seeman, PhD (2002), University of California at Berkeley, is Associate Professor of Theology at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio. His publications include Rome and Judea in Transition: Hasmonean Relations with the Roman Republic and the Evolution of the High Priesthood (New York: Lang, 2013) and, with Paul Spilsbury, Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Judean Antiquities 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2017).