Hannukah: history, traditions, & applications to Believers

During the reign of Alexander the Great (336-323 BC), Syria, Egypt, and Palestine experienced much freedom and were allowed to practice their own religions. Under Alexander the Great’s relative benevolent rule, many Jews adopted much of the Hellenistic culture, language, customs, and dress of the Greeks. However, a century later, under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Jews were severely oppressed. In 168 BC, the Temple was desecrated. There was not only worship of Zeus in the Temple, but a statue of Zeus was erected and pigs were sacrificed on the Altar. Jews were ordered to bow down to Greek gods.

A remnant of Jews resisted and refused to worship false gods, and a rebellion broke out against Antiochus and the Seleucid/Greek monarchy. Mattathias and his five sons led the resistance. Following Mattathias’ death, his son Judah took over. They called themselves the Maccabees (an acrostic of the Hebrew Mi Kamocha B’Elim Adonai (Who among the mighty [other gods] is like You, Lord?) Thru guerilla-type warfare tactics, the Maccabees were successful and regained control of the Temple. Judah then called for the Temple to be cleansed, rebuild the Altar, and light its menorah, which was to be kept burning every night. According to tradition, the Jews discovered there was only one vial of undefiled oil. Nevertheless, the menorah was lit … and it continued burning for eight days, until more oil could be made.

Though this event occurred after the close of the Tenach (Old Testament), it is referred to in the Brit Hadashah (New Testament) when Yeshua (Jesus) was in Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication (“It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication,” John 10:22, NLT).

As Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf stated, the Jewish people are a “tiny and ill equipped people [who] was prepared to take on the superpower of its day.” [Are we, as believers, willing to follow God even when we are facing formidable enemies?]

There are three things Hannukah celebrates:

1.   The miracle of the Temple’s one vial of oil lasting for eight days, not one.

2.   The Rededication of the Second Temple. (Another name for Hannukah is the Feast of Dedication.)

3.   The victory over assimilation. The Jews’ resistance to becoming completely Greek in action, thought, language, and culture. (It is interesting to note that Jews do not glorify military victory, only the resulting events. For example, the reclaiming of the Temple in 164 BC and the Western Wall in 1967.)

To a believer, perhaps the most significant is God’s intervention:

1.   HE enabled the weaker and less significant (the Jews) to overcome the most powerful (the Seleucid/Greek army).

2.   HE enabled the one day of oil to last for eight.

3.   HE enables us to have victory over assimilation into the world around us; victory over the trials of our personal lives. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” John 8:12b, NIV.)

4.   Daily, He wants us to rededicate our lives (our earthly temples) to Him.

Many non-Jews think of Hannukah as the ‘Jewish Christmas’. They, however, celebrate two totally different events. Since Hannukah is not a major Biblical festival, there are no prescribed ways of commemorating it. Consequently, traditions have grown up surrounding this miracle.

Some think of traditions as anathemas. But are traditions evil? Let me ask. If I were to mention turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie, what immediately comes to mind? Thanksgiving. Doing the same thing year after year helps us to remember a special day. These actions bring vivid memories to mind. So, it is with the various traditions surrounding holidays. While they are not evil, they are not to be exalted above God’s Word.

When one thinks of Hannukah traditions, five come to mind: Hannukah Menorah (Hannukiah in Hebrew; the 9-branch candelabra); gelt (money in Yiddish); latkes (potato pancakes); soofganiot (a type of jelly-filled donut); and dreidels (4-sided tops).

The Hannukah menorah (hannukiah in Hebrew) has 9 branches while the Temple menorah has only seven. Why 9? One branch is the shamash, or servant candle, from which the others are lit. The remaining 8 candles remind us of the miracle of the oil’s lasting 8 days. The Temple menorah has only 7 branches, according to God’s instruction.

Gelt (money; the Hebrew word isdmei): did you know that the first Jewish coins, according to Jewish Outreach Institute, were minted in 142 BC, after the Macabees gained independence from the evil Syrian king. Jewish coinage ceased after the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 AD, until Israel became a state. To connect the ancient with the modern, the Bank of Israel began striking commemorative coins. The first was stamped with the same image of a menorah that had appeared on the last Maccabean coin — 1,998 years beforehand! (An interesting side note: the 1976 commemorative coin, the 200th anniversary of the US Declaration of Independence, featured a colonial American menorah.)

Why money at Hannukah? This tradition dates back to the 17th century in Europe, particularly in Poland. Families gave their children money to give to their teachers. Children were also given money for themselves. By the 18th century, it became customary for poor children to visit more well-off families who would give them gelt. This custom met with the approval of rabbis and spread as the story of Hannukah spread.

Is there a correlation between Americans’ giving money for Christmas and gelt giving …?

Prior to the Civil War, American Jews rarely celebrated Hannukah. By the 1920s, Hannukah began increasing in commercialism, paralleling Christmas. Also in the 1920s an American confectioner produced chocolate gelt. These are coin-shaped chocolates covered with foil and made to resemble real coins. They come in “money bags”, plastic netting.

Is gift giving Jewish? Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, explains that Jews exchanged gifts on Purim. In the late 19th century, gift-giving switched from Purim to Hannukah, when Christmas became a national holiday in America. He adds: “Hannukah gelt is an old custom, well attested in Europe. Gift giving, by contrast, is new.” The practice of giving gifts on Hannukah became widespread in the post WWII 1950s. (The intention was to help Jewish kids feel happy and proud of being Jewish.)

Many families desire to get away from the commercialization of Hannukah. They buy a family gift, or give money (because of its being more of a Jewish tradition). A wonderful idea: give $1 on the 1st night; two on the second; and so on. By the final night, the child will have gotten $36! This is a great opportunity to teach the children about tzedekah (giving to the poor) and money management.

Latkes (potato pancakes) & soofganiot (jelly-filled donuts). As with all holidays, food is an important part. Hannukah is no exception. However, these two food traditions are popular in different parts of the world. What is consistent is the eating of fried foods during Hannukah, commemorating the oil’s lasting for 8 days. Latkes, potato pancakes, are very popular in Europe and their popularity spread to the US with the influx of European Jews (Ashkenazi Jews). However, soofganiot (jelly-filled donuts) are popular in Israel;many American Jews are unfamiliar with these tasty treats.

Every grandmother has her special recipe for latkes. These recipes are proudly, and often secretly, passed from generation to generation. Basically all latkes are made of shredded potatoes, onions, eggs, salt, pepper, and flour (often matzah). Once they are formed into patties, they are fried in oil.

Soofganiot are all the rave in Israel. Possibly these came from the North African tradition of making sfenj. As the central and eastern European Jews mingled with North African Jews, these delights gradually evolved into soofganiot.

Shortly after Sukkot, one will find soofganiot sold on the streets of Israel. These are a heavy cake-type donut filled with jelly; though today some have cream or other donut types of fillings. (It is interesting to note, that in this day of nutrition awareness, many soofganiot are made smaller so as to cut the calories in half.) Again, the emphasis is on fried food reflecting back to the lasting of the oil in the Temple.

The largest bakery in Israel reportedly fries more than 250,000 soofganiot during the 8 days of Hannukah!! Each batch uses 100 kilos (220 pounds!) of dough and makes 1600 soofganiot. There are even contests as to which bakery makes the best.

The final tradition of Hannukah is the dreidel. As with many traditions, there is much question as to the origin of this children’s game. Many claim this dreidel game was devised to help camouflage the study of Torah. The Greeks forbid Jews to study Torah. When a Greek soldier was spotted, the scrolls would be hidden and the Jews would begin spinning their tops (dreidels). The soldiers then thought they were gambling, an approved activity. Many children play this game with Hannukah gelt, candies, raisins, nuts, stones.

Dreidels, 4-sided tops, come in many different colors and materials. Each dreidel has these letters.

נ– the nun stands for Nes and stands for miracle.

ג– the gimmel stands for Gadol and stands for great.

ה— the hey stands for Haya and stands for was [happened]

פּ— the pey stands for Poh and stands for here [dreidels made in Israel have the pey]: A great miracle happened here!

שׁ— the shin stands for Sham and stands for there [dreidels made outside of Israel have the shin]: A great miracle happened there!

Some children play this game this way:

If the dreidel lands on the nun – the player does nothing.

If it lands on the gimmel, they get everything.

If it lands on the hey, they get half.

If it lands on the pey, theyput in.

Because of the gambling overtones, when our children were young, and even today, we play byseeing whose dreidel will spin the longest – a great exercise in dexterity and a fun activity for the kids and adults.

So what does Hannukah mean to me as a believer? That I have another opportunity to focus on God’s miracles in our lives. To focus our attention away from the busy-nessof life and onto the King of the Universe, the Creator of all!