Hanukkah In the Bible – History and Traditions

Hanukkah In the Bible  – History and Traditions

Hanukkah is an early Winter version of Purim and is sometimes considered a winter version of Sukkot since it is a time to rejoice and remember the victory that the Lord gave His people during a time of immense oppression and affliction under the Greeks.

The book of 2 Maccabees details the military victory that took place under the oppressive government of Antiochus VI Epiphanes during the Maccabean period.

While the miracle of the oil lasting in the Temple Menorah is largely associated with the holiday of Hanukkah, it has not been proven and its addition to the story of Hanukkah has been attributed to Rabbis hundreds of years later.

Whether or not this story is true, the celebration of this holiday is still a celebration of the victory that the Hebrews commanded their posterity to celebrate. The Hebrews of the Maccabean period were overjoyed over the help and protection they received from God during that time in history. 

Military Battle 

Judea was part of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt until 200 BC. It was during this time that king Antiochus III the Great of Syria defeated King Ptolemy V Epiphanes of Egypt. Both kings came from the reigning line of generals who took over Alexander the Great’s empire upon his death in 323 BC. Judea then became apart of the Seleucid Empire of Syria. Antiochus III the Great tried to appease his new subjects by allowing them to perform their Hebrew customs and practices, following his takeover of Judea.

However, 25 years later in 175 BC, his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded Judea following the request of the sons of Tobias. The sons of Tobias led a group of Hebrews who wanted to become more Hellenized – people who embraced the lifestyle, culture, and traditions of the Greeks and those who wanted to forsake the practices and traditions of their forefathers. The sons of Tobias had been thrown out of Judea by the more traditional Jews. They then proceeded to gain the backing of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes to recapture Jerusalem from the more traditional Jews. The king liked this plan and in 167 BC he with a great army attacked and plundered Jerusalem without mercy. They defiled the Temple and stopped the daily Temple sacrifices. Circumcision was banned, pigs were sacrificed on the altar and the Temple was dedicated to Zeus.

Victory by the Maccabees

Mattathias the priest and his sons led a revolt against the king, and after three years, successfully took back the Temple and rededicated it back to the Lord. These events took place on 25 Kislev – the ninth month in the Hebrew calendar, exactly three years after the Temple was first defiled by the Greeks under King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Wikipedia Hanukkah).

“And this desolation came to pass according to the prophecy of Daniel, which was given four hundred and eight years before – 575 BC; for he declared that the Macedonians would stop that worship. Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon: but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices, and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that hence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls around the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. ” (The Antiquities of the Jews Book 12 chapter 7, Josephus).

Fact or Tradition

Menorah lit for Hanukkah  - byZipporah

That is how the first Hanukkah was celebrated as well as some backstory from history. However, there are many traditions that were later added to this holiday, that maybe we should think about before incorporating into our celebrations as Hebrews.

The game Dreidel was derived from an Irish or English top that was introduced to Germany became popular around Christmas time, and dates back to Greek and Roman times. The letters on the sides of the top told the rules of the game and were later adapted to the Hebrew Alphabet. Traditionally it was first played by the Jews who illegally studied the Torah while under the rule of the Seleucids under Antiochus IV, they would play the game as a cover for studying the Torah (Wikipedia Dreidel). In addition to playing dreidel, fried foods are eaten, and both commemorate the “miracle” of the oil.

Lastly, the menorah used during Hanukkah has nine branches because the Talmud strictly prohibits the use of the original seven-branched menorah outside of the Temple (Wikipedia Menorah-temple). However, the Bible details how the original menorah looked, as well as, telling us that we should not take from or add to the Torah. 

Shemoth (Exodus) 25: 31- 40:  “31 And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold; thou shalt make the candlestick of graven work: its stem and its branches, and its bowels and its knops and its lilies shall be of one piece. 32 And the six branches proceeding sideways, three branches of the candlestick from one side of it, and the three branches of the candlestick from the other side. 33 And three bowls fashioned like almonds, on each branch a knop and a lily; so to the six branches proceeding from the candlestick, 34, and in the candlestick four bowls fashioned like almonds, in each branch knops and the flowers of the same. 35 A knop under two branches out of it, and a knop under four branches out of it; so to the six branches proceeding from the candlestick; and in the candlestick four bowls fashioned like almonds. 36 Let the knops and the branches be of one piece, altogether graven of one piece of pure gold. 37 And thou shalt make its seven lamps; and thou shalt set on the lamps, and they shall shine from one front. 38 And thou shalt make its funnel and its snuff-dishes of pure gold. 39 All theses articles a talent* of pure gold. 40 See, thou shalt make them according to the pattern shewed thee in the mount. “

*A talent is 37.8 lbs (ISR The scriptures bible – monetary weights and units. Page 1235.).

Debarim (Deuteronomy) 12:32: Every word that I command you this day, it shalt thou observe to do: thou shalt not add to it, nor diminish from it. 

Hanukkah is not a commanded high holiday and the main story that is associated with it may not be true. However, it can be a time to celebrate the victory that God gave and continues to give His people. It can be a time to break up the monotony and be festive during the beginning of shortening, cold winter days.

However, Hanukkah should not be made higher or more important than the High Holidays of the Bible, and the understanding of the history of Hanukkah should be on the forefront. Make sure to use a seven-branched menorah to make sure we are not adding to the commands of the Lord, and have fun, Shalom!

All Old Testament scriptures are from the Septuagint.

4 thoughts on “Hanukkah In the Bible – History and Traditions”

  • Hello Zipporah! Just found your blog! My name is Katy and we are new-ish (Winter of 2018) to Torah. We found the Truth after a lifetime of being in mainstream christianity. Could you share in a post how you came to Torah! I would love to hear your story. And We is my husband, and our 3 soon to be 4 children.

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