The Dedication

Fact and Fiction Regarding Hanukkah


Hanukkah is a Jewish, non-biblical holiday based on events recorded in the apocryphal book of First Maccabees in the 4th chapter. First, a word about the book itself: Jews and most non-Jews do not consider the book as canon that is they donít consider it as divinely inspired. However, Catholics do consider Maccabees as canon. Regardless of which side you take, Maccabees is almost universally respected as good history.


Hanukkah (the Jewish word meaning dedication) in the modern world has become one of the more important or perhaps I should say most popular Jewish holidays and there is much tradition associated with it. Here are some of the traditions commonly associated with Hanukkah. Every community has its unique Hanukkah traditions, but there are some traditions that are almost universally practiced. They are: lighting the hanukkiyah, spinning the dreidel and eating fried foods.

*†† Lighting the hanukkiyah: Every year it is customary to commemorate the miracle of the Hanukkah oil by lighting candles on a hanukkiyah. The hanukkiyah is lit every night for eight nights.

*†† Spinning the dreidel: A popular Hanukkah game is spinning the dreidel, which is a four-sided top with Hebrew letters written on each side.

*†† Eating fried foods: Because Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil, it is traditional to eat fried foods such as latkes and sufganiyot during the holiday. Latkes are pancakes made out of potatoes and onions, which are fried in oil and then served with applesauce. Sufganiyot are jelly-filled donuts that are fried and sometimes dusted with confectionersí sugar before eating.

Letís read the dedication or Hanukkah storyas recorded in Maccabees together. (1 Maccabees 4) The classical rabbis downplayed the military and nationalistic dimensions of Hanukkah, and some even interpreted the emphasis upon the story of the miracle oil as a diversion away from the struggle with empires that had led to the disastrous downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans. With the advent of Zionism and the state of Israel, these themes were reconsidered. In modern Israel, the national and military aspects of Hanukkah became, once again, more dominant.

In North America especially, Hanukkah gained increased importance with many Jewish families in the latter half of the 20th century, including large numbers of secular Jews, who wanted a Jewish alternative to the Christmas celebrations that often overlap with Hanukkah. Though it was traditional among Ashkenazi Jews to give "gelt" or money coins to children during Hanukkah, in many families this has changed into gifts in order to prevent Jewish children from feeling left out of the Christmas gift giving.

While Hanukkah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday, as indicated by the lack of religious restrictions on work other than a few minutes after lighting the candles, in North America, Hanukkah has taken a place equal to Passover as a symbol of Jewish identity. Both the Israeli and North American versions of Hanukkah emphasize resistance, focusing on some combination of national liberation and religious freedom as the defining meaning of the holiday.

So briefly those are some traditions surrounding Hanukkah. But as is the case with Christmas much of the tradition has no basis in fact. In Christmas we have Santa Clause and his bag of gifts, lead of course by Rudolph. Then we have the tree and mistletoe. Also the manger scene with three wise men in attendance is fantasy, they never went to the manger and we donít know how many wise men came to see the Christ-child.And it certainly was nowhere near December 25. So we have some enhancements and some pure fabrications in the Christmas story. A nice story

Likewise with Hanukkah: What does the dreidel have to do with the dedication of the temple or for that matter gift giving? And the hanukkiyah has nine branches rather than seven of the temple lamp. Not necessarily any wrong doing here either. Tradition, to be sure, but no there is no fabrication of fact either. But wait a minute, what is the deal with the miracle oil? Where did that come from? The only miracle mentioned in Maccabees is the victory over the enemy that allowed the rededication of the temple.Letís visit that story in more detail. Here is the story as commonly told.

Once the Maccabees had regained control they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. By this time it had been spiritually defiled by being used for the worship of foreign gods and also by practices such as sacrificing swine. Jewish troops were determined to purify the Temple by burning ritual oil in the Templeís menorah for eight days. But to their dismay, they discovered that there was only one day's worth of oil left in the Temple. They lit the menorah anyway and to their surprise the small amount of oil lasted the full eight days. This is the miracle of the Hanukkah oil that is celebrated every year when Jews light a special menorah known as a hanukkiyah for eight days. One candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, two on the second, and so on, until eight candles are lit.

The only problem with this story is that there is no evidence to support it. Itís not mentioned at all in the only eye witness documentation. In fact the first mention of the miracle oil shows up in about 500 AD, over 600 hundred years after the fact! Here are a few excerpts from reliable sources.

Jewish Rabbi Daniel Kohn, in answer to the question, "Is the miracle of Chanukah made up?" stated that the whole concept of the miracle of the oil, was indeed untrue. While stating that the actual lighting of the Menorah for the dedication of the Temple was real and based on spiritual significance, the rabbinic writings in the Talmud took the shift from the Maccabeean military victory to that of a claimed miracle of the oil for the Menorah.

The perceived glory of the Maccabean victory became overshadowed due to all they did that caused harm to fellow Jews and their focus became viewed as dangerous and containing seditious ideas that were to be suppressed. The fear of glorifying the military success of the Maccabeans while under Roman rule, formed the basis for the idea of inventing the story of the miracle of the oil to become the focus and with it, masked the truth about the Maccabees and their shameful legacy for many years. By reinventing the stories, the rabbis kept the holiday alive with a shift in focus and thereby inserted more religious significance.†† From

The principal source for the story of Hanukkah and the oil is found in the Talmud and many Jewish and non-Jewish sources discuss the fact that the legend of the oil burning for eight days in the Temple is just that, legend.

A few hundred years later, the rabbis of the Talmud concocted a story about a miracle of oil. They wrote in the Talmud (codified around the year 500 CE) says that when the Greeks entered the Temple, they destroyed all the oil in it. When the Hasmonean/Maccabean dynasty prevailed, they searched and found only one bottle of oil, sealed by the High Priest. It contained only enough for one day, and yet a miracle came about and the oil lasted for eight days. Of course, thatís the story most of us learn about HanukkahÖ but the reality is that itís just a story Ė a legend. Thereís no historical accuracy to the oil tale.


So at the time of Jesus, the Feast of Dedication was still about the miracle of how the Maccabees miraculously overcame the enemy and rededicated the temple. The story of the oil had not yet been invented. The Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) is mentioned only once in the Bible and that is in the New Testament in John 10:22.

*†† (John 10:22-23 NIV)Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, {23} and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon's Colonnade.

The context has nothing to do with the Feast of Dedication but merely tells us what part of winter it was. It would be like saying; it was winter, about the time of Christmas. It doesnít tell us if Jesus observed the feast or not. And, if He did,it had no miraculous oil element as that story hadnít been invented yet!

Still, Hanukkah remains a great story about Godís intervention on behalf of His people. There is no reason not to share in the remembrance of this restoration of the temple. But the military victory and the rebuilding and the rededication of the temple is sufficient. There is no reason to shift the focus from what God did to a story or tradition that is man-made.