Hanukkah by Chris Seeman

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.

Chris Seeman, "Hanukkah", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online:



Chris Seeman
Associate Professor of Theology, Walsh University

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).

The Jewish festival which recalls over an 8-day period the rededication of the Temple in 165 B.C.E. by the Maccabees who fought against the Seleucids.

Ruler of the Seleucid Empire from 175 to 164 BCE, he was emperor during the Maccabean Revolt.

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

The critical interpretation or explanation of a scriptural text.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

the ninth month of the Jewish calendar

A calendar that follows months based on the 29.5-day moon cycle rather than the solar cycle. A lunar year of 12 months is shorter than the 365-day solar year, requiring the insertion of leap-months periodically. The Israelite, and later Jewish, calendars are based on the lunar cycle.

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

The seven-armed candelabrum that stood in the Jerusalem temple; the rekindling of the menorah when the Maccabees rededicated the temple is celebrated during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

A collection of rabbinic interpretations of biblical law. The Mishnah records the judgments of a group of rabbis called tannaim (as distinct from the amoraim, whose interpretations of the Mishnah are recorded in the Talmud). According to tradition, the Mishnah was compiled and edited by a rabbi named Judah the Prince around 200 C.E.

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

Devotion to a divinity and the expression of that devotion.

a journey, usually with religious significance

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

The means of cleansing oneself of any ritual impurity that would prevent participation in religious observance such as sacrifice at the temple.

Literally "Booths," one of the biblical pilgrimage festivals, celebrated in the fall.

A collection of rabbinic writings, mostly interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and the Mishnah (another rabbinic collection). There are two Talmuds, the Palestinian and the Babylonian, so called after the region in which each is believed to have been compiled. The Talmuds were likely composed between the third and the sixth centuries C.E.

An acronym for the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), comprising Torah (Law), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).

the tenth month of the Jewish calendar

king of Greek gods

1Macc 1:54

54Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built ... View more

2Macc 1:9

9And now see that you keep the festival of booths in the month of Chislev, in the one hundred eighty-eighth year.

2Macc 10:7

7Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the p ... View more

2Macc 10:7

7Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the p ... View more

Jdt 15

The Assyrians Flee in Panic
1When the men in the tents heard it, they were amazed at what had happened.2Overcome with fear and trembling, they did not wait for ... View more

2Macc 10:8

8They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.

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