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What is Channukah?

Channukah is a celebration of the victory of Judaism over Greek culture. When Alexander conquered much of the known world, it was his dream to bring the Greek culture to the world. Upon his death his Empire was divided among his generals. Each of these new Kingdoms were Greek in culture. In time the Syrian “Seleucid Empire” came to be ruled by Antiochus Epiphanies who also gained control of Jerusalem. This coincided with a campaign of forced Hellenization in Judea. Circumcision and Torah observance became outlawed. Jews were forced, on pain of death, to sacrifice unkosher animals on the alter, to rededicate the Temple to the Greek god Zeus and to eat meat that had been offered up to idols. In reaction to this oppression a group of Jewish warriors known as the Maccabees fled into the wilderness and fought gorilla warfare against the Greco-Syrians. They ultimately prevailed and rededicated the Temple to YHWH on the 25th of Kislev, establishing the eight day festival of Channukah to celebrate the rededication of the alter.

Channukah vs. Christmas

Often Channukah is confused with Christmas. Some have even said that Channukah is “Jewish Christmas” or “what the Jews call Christmas”. This is most unfortunate. Christmas resulted when the Christian Church chose to incorporate pagan customs into their religion. Christmas was adopted from the very Hellenist culture that the Maccabees were resisting. Christmas is a capitulation to Hellenism while the point of Channukah is a celebration of the successful refusal to capitulate to Hellenism.

Long before Christmas, Channukah was celebrated as a “festival of lights”. We learn from 2Maccabees (1:18 & 10:6) that Channukah was celebrated in the same manner as Sukkot (Tabernacles). And according to the Talmud Sukkot was celebrated by lighting up Jerusalem with four menorahs which stood 75 feet tall (m.Sukkah 5:2-4; b.Sukkah 52b). And while some believe that gift giving originated in Christmas and was adopted into Channukah, it was very likely the other way around, as Jewish fesivals were celebrated with gift giving at least as early as the time of Ester (Ester 9:22).

Channukah and Torah

Channukah is very much a pro-Torah festival. The primary symbol of Channukah is light and light represents the Torah, as the Tanak says:

For the commandment is a lamp;
and the Torah is light…
(Prov. 6:23)

The antagonists in the Books of the Maccabees are called in the Greek versions of these books “Torah-less” (anomian) and “Opposed to Torah” (para-nomian). The books of 2nd and 4th Maccabees tell us of those who were martyred because they refused to abandon Torah and the theme of the 4th Book of Maccabees is that the Torah (being divine reason) is supreme.

Celebration of Channukah

The central element of Channukh celebration is the lighting of the Channukiah, a special Channukah menorah. Unlike the seven branched menorah, the Chanukah menorah has nine branches. Eight of these are for each of the eight days of Channukah and one, called the Shamash (helper) is used to light the other eight. This ninth light is usually elevated from the other eight so as to distinguish it from the others.

One each of the eight nights of Channukah an additional candle (or lamp) is lit so that on the eighth day, all eight are burning. The first night the light on the far right is lit. On the second night the two on the farthest right are lit and so on. Also each night we begin by lighting the new light first and then working our way back to the beginning (to the left) so that the first comes last and the last comes first.

On Friday evenings the Channukah candle (or oil) is lit early, before sun down and before the Sabbath candles. On Saturday night the Channukah candle is lit after havdalah (the close of Sabbath).

Each night immediately after lighting the Channukah lights, the following prayer is said:

Baruch ata YHWH Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam
Asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Channukah
Baruch ata YHWH Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam
She-asa nisim la’avoteynu bayamim haheym ba-zman hazeh.

Blessed are You YHWH our Elohim, King of the universe
Who has sanctified us by your commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of Channukah.
Blessed are You YHWH our Elohim, King of the universe
Who worked miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season.

On the first night of Channukah we also recite the Shehecheyanu, the traditional prayer marking special occasions:

Baruch ata YHWH Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam
Shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higanu la-zman hazeh.

Blessed are You YHWH our Elohim, King of the universe
Who has kept us in life, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.

Channukah is also often celebrated by eating foods cooked in oil. Traditional favorites are potato latkes, a sort of potato pancake. Another favorite are homemade donuts fried in oil.

Many families also exchange gifts at Channukah. Some see this as a custom borrowed from Christmas, however some evidence indicates that gift-exchanging was a common part of Jewish festival celebration in general, and may have been incorporated into Christmas from Channukah. It appears that anciently Jewish festival celebration often included gift-giving. The Scriptures mention this custom in connection with Rosh Hashanna (Neh. 8:10) and Purim (Ester 9:22) and it may well have been practiced in connection with Channukah as well.

Another popular Channukah custom is the Dreidel game. A Dreidel is a four sided top, with a Hebrew letter on each of the four sides. The game is played by spinning the top, when the top finally comes to rest, one of the four letters is facing up (similar to rolling dice). The letters on the Dreidel are:





These four letters stand for the phrase:

Nes Gadol Haya Sham
“A great miracle happened there.”

Depending on which letter comes up the player does one of four things:

GIMEL Take everything from the pot.

HEY Take half of the pot.

SHIN Put one in the pot.

NUN Do nothing.

Children often play the dreidel game with candy coins called “gelt”. There is a tradition the game was used to conceal Torah study in times when Torah study was outlawed. Men would be gathered around studying Torah and if they were discovered by the authorities they would pretend to be gathered around gambling.


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Comment by Lew White on December 12, 2012 at 12:41pm

Everyone needs to learn the background of this festival, and not resist it as so many do.

Those who feel that Torah did not require it are missing-out on this awesome time of remembrance of yet another great deliverance from the Greek power (or horn as it is described in Daniel).  Please support this work of James, even if only a small amount each month.  You can give now by PayPal - the link is at the top right.


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