Hanukkah in Tradition, Worship, and the Ministry of Jesus


Date Begins on the 25th of Kislev (falling in November or December).
Duration Lasts for eight days.
Meaning of Name Feast of Dedication.
Other Name Festival of Lights.
Important sources of information First and Second Maccabees; Josephs, Antiquities 12:7; John 10:22; Sabbat 21b (in the Talmud).
History Historically Hanukkah recounts the victory of the Jewish people over the pagan Greek Syrians in 164 B. The Syrians had defiled the Temple by sacrificing an unclean animal—a pig—on the altar.
Traditions and Customs The “miracle” of Hanukkah is told in the popular legend associated with this holiday: When the Temple was recaptured and the altar rededicated, enough oil was found for the sacred candelabrum to burn for only one day. It took a week to obtain fresh supplies, but miraculously the oil burned for the full eight days until the new supply was procured. In commemoration of this, Jewish people light the Hanukkah lamp or menorah for eight consecutive days.

Lighting the menorah: Although the Temple candelabrum had seven branches, a Hanukkah menorah has nine. The center or otherwise prominent candle is called the shammes, meaning “servant.” It is used to light the other eight. On the first night only one candle is lit; on the following night two, and this increases progressively until on the last day all eight are lit to commemorate the eight days during which the oil is said to have burned miraculously. The shammes remains lighted throughout.

Gifts are exchanged at Hanukkah. Hanukkah gelt (money) for the children may be small amounts of actual money or chocolate coins hidden in festive gold wrappings.

Games Most traditional is the dreidl game played with a four-sided top inscribed with one Hebrew letter on each side: nun, gimel, he and shin. Players place one item of small value like a nut, a candy, a penny or a representative toothpick on the table. As each player spins the dreidl the outcome is decided by the fall of the top and the letter it shows: nun stands for the Yiddish nights meaning the player takes nothing; gimel means gan (all), he indicates hale (half), and shin stands for shell (put in more).

By tradition the four letters of the dreidl also form a Hebrew acrostic for ne gaol ayah sham—”a great miracle happened there,” referring once again to the “miracle” of the oil that burned for eight days.

Food Holiday food includes potato pancakes (in some countries doughnuts) fried in oil, again in memory of the miracle of the oil. Depending on the area of the world, the holiday dishes are called lakes,fasputshes, pontshkes (all Eastern European), zalaviyye (Yemen), dushpire (Bukhara), ata-if (Iraq), or spanzes (Tripoli).
Scripture Synagogue Readings: Torah portion: Numbers 7. Haftorah (prophetic) portions: Zechariah 2:14-4:7, and if a second Sabbath falls during Hanukkah, First Kings 7:40-50. All portions deal with the dedication of God’s house and its vessels, or in the case of Zechariah, describe the menorah. Among the Sephardim (Mediterranean Jews), Psalm 30 is read, entitled, “A song at the dedication of the House of David.”
Liturgy and Music Special Prayers: Three blessings are recited at Hanukkah:

  1. “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments, and commanded us to kindle the light of Hanukkah.”
  2. “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who wroughtest miracles for our fathers in days of old at this season.”
  3. On the first night only this is also said: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who hast kept us in life, and preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.”

Other Prayers: Al ha-Nissim, “For the Miracles.” The Hallel, Psalms 113-118, is recited daily.

The hymn Ma’oz Tzur, “Rock of Ages,” is sung. It is not to be confused with the Christian hymn of the same name. Ma’oz Tzur was composed in the 13th century in Germany by a certain Mordecai. The hymn speaks of the hope of restoring the Temple service. It recounts God’s deliverance of the Jews from the Egyptians, from the Babylonians and from Haman (Book of Esther), and tells the Hanukkah story. Another popular song at Hanukkah, again about God’s preserving power, is Mi Y’malel, “Who Can Retell?”

Themes The Worship of God, shown by the story of the rededication of the Temple.

The Power of God, shown by the victory of the Maccabees and mentioned in the Haftorah portion in Zechariah 4:6, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.”

The Existence and Preservation of the Jewish People is also a popular contemporary theme.

Jesus and Hanukkah John 10:22-23 reads: “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” Three things should be noticed:

1. Just as Hanukkah speaks of deliverance, this passage speaks of Jesus as the Deliverer.

2. The Hanukkah story recounts that Antiochus appointed certain high priests who would further the destruction of Jewish worship. They were leaders from within the Jewish people who did not have the interests of God in mind. Similarly, on that Hanukkah mentioned in John 10 or shortly before, Jesus said, “All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers” (John 10:8), referring to the same problem of false leaders among the Jewish people in his own day.

3. According to scholar A. Guilding, in Jesus’ day the synagogue readings at Hanukkah had the theme of sheep and shepherds and included passages such as Ezekiel 34. Compare Ezekiel 34:2 (“Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?”) with John 10:1 (“I am the good shepherd”). If Guilding is correct, that would have been an ideal occasion for Jesus’ words.


Rich Robinson | San Francisco

Scholar in Residence, Missionary

Rich has been on staff since 1978. He has served at several Jews for Jesus branches and was a pianist and songwriter with their music team, the Liberated Wailing Wall. He is now at the San Francisco headquarters, where he conducts research, writes and edits as the senior researcher. He is author of the books Christ in the Sabbath and The Day Jesus Did Tikkun Olam: Jewish Values and the New Testament, and co-author of Christ in the Feast of Pentecost. Rich received his M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1978 and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies and Hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.

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