The History of Hanukkah

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Podcast Transcript

Sometime every December, members of the Jewish faith celebrate the festival of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is one of the best-known Jewish holidays and is associated with various popular symbols and objects.

However, most people don’t know the story behind why the holiday exists or the background beyond the many items associated with it. 

Learn more about the celebration of Hanukkah, its history, and how it is celebrated on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I get into the history of Hanukkah, I should address one basic thing about it that you might have noticed: how it is spelled.

There are at least 20 different spellings of the word that are used, including some starting with an ‘H,’ some starting with a ‘C,’ some that use one ‘k’ and some that use two ‘k’s,’ some that put an ‘h’ at the end and some that don’t, and some that use two ‘n’s’ instead of one.

The problem stems from the translation from Hebrew to English. The pronunciation of the word in Hebrew is Hau-nu-KA (and I apologize for my pronunciation). 

The first letter in Hebrew is the letter ‘chet,’ which doesn’t easily translate to English, as with other Hebrew letters. 

The two most popular spellings have been Hanukkah and Chanukah. However, over the last several years, the spelling with the “H” has become the preferred version of many rabbis and the predominantly used version. 

The word Hanukkah translates to the word “dedication.”

So, with that, what is the background of this festival, and why is it still celebrated today? 

The story starts with Alexander the Great. Well, actually, I suppose we could start almost anywhere, but Alexander the Great is as good a place as any.

As you know from previous episodes, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, established a land empire stretching from Greece to India, and died at 32 without leaving an heir. 

Alexander’s top generals split up his empire into a collection of kingdoms. The kingdom that is relevant for this episode is the Seleucid Empire. 

The Seleucid Empire comprised almost everything in Alexander’s Empire to the east, including Mesopotamia and Iran. 

In 200 BC, the Seleucid Empire, under King Antiochus III, conquered the region known as Judea which had been controlled by Ptolemaic Egypt. 

Judea was a relatively small area centered on Jerusalem, extending out to the Dead Sea and the Jordan River in the east and about halfway to the Mediterranean Sea. 

Antiochus III wanted to keep his new subjects happy, so he allowed the Jews to practice their customs and religions. 

However, in the year 175 BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the son of Antiochus III, became king of the Seleucid Empire. 

Antiochus IV completely reversed his father’s policy towards the Jews. He instituted a policy of Hellinization in all of the lands he ruled. This included enforcing the Greek language and religion. 

This meant banning the practice of Judaism and Jewish customs. 

There were other Jews who went along with the prohibitions. These were known as Hellinized Jews, and they either practiced Judaism with Greek customs or abandoned Judaism entirely. 

Antiochus IV invaded Judea in 168 BC and proceeded to sack Jerusalem. Thousands of people were killed, and the Second Temple was sacked. 

In addition to defiling the Jewish temple, he set up a temple to Zeus inside. 

Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with many people in Judea, many of whom still supported the Ptolmies in Egypt, who let them worship as they saw fit. 

A group of Jews led by one of the temple priests, Mattathias ben Johanan, and his five sons revolted against Antiochus IV. This resistance group became known as the Maccabees and was named after his son Judas Maccabeus, which means Judas the Hammer. 

The Maccabees rose up against the Selucids and fought a guerilla war in Judea for several years. The entire Maccabean revolt is probably worthy of its own episode in the future, but after years of struggle, they managed to recapture Jerusalem and the temple in 164 BC.

Once the temple was recaptured, it had to be rededicated, and part of rededicating the temple was lighting the menorah. 

The menorah was a central component of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Here, I should take a brief detour to explain the importance of the menorah. In ancient times, the symbol of Judaism wasn’t the Star of David like it is today. It was the menorah. 

Several years ago, I was invited to visit one of the Jewish catacombs in Rome. These aren’t as accessible as the Christian catacombs, so I took the opportunity to visit. Inside, the primary symbol that was visible over the tombs was the menora. 

If you go to Rome today, between the Colosseum and the Forum, you can see the Arch of Titus. On the arch is an engraving that shows the Roman looting of the Temple in Jerusalem, which is clearly shown in the Golden Menorah. 

The menorah sat inside the Tabernacle in the temple and had seven branches, each of which could be lit with oil. The Menorah was lit every day and remained lit throughout the evening until the morning. 

The only thing that could be used to light the lamps was pure, fresh, consecrated olive oil. 

Supposedly, the Selucids only had left a single jar of concentrated olive oil that could be used on the Temple menorah. 

Making new consecrated olive oil requires the person making the oil to have been purified. According to Jewish law, to be purified, you had to have not touched a human corpse for seven days

Because all of the Macabbeans were soldiers who had just finished fighting a battle, no one was able to consecrate the oil for seven days. 

So the legend has it that the single jar of concentrated oil managed to keep the menorah lit for eight days. The seven days of waiting plus the one day of actually making the oil. 

Hanukkah, lasting eight days, has actually been the subject of controversy because of the whole purification period lasting just seven days.  There have been literally hundreds of explanations trying to explain how the seven days resulted in celebrating for eight days. 

Accounts of the Maccabean revolt have been documented in Macabbes 1 and 2, which are the last books in the Old Testament in the Orthodox and Catholic Bibles. However, the story of the oil miracle isn’t present in these texts. There is a reference to the rededication of the temple but not the oil.

The story of the oil has mostly been passed down from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and from the Talmud. The Talmud is an authoritative text containing Jewish law, ethics, customs, and folklore.

So, how did this end up becoming a regularly celebrated festival?

In the years following the events of the Maccabean revolt, people began to light flames to remember and honor the events that took place and the miracle they believed happened. 

These first lights were probably not menorahs because, at the time, the Temple still existed, and the menorah was at the temple. They were probably just simple oil lamps with multiple wicks. 

The destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 by the Romans began the Jewish diaspora, which sent Jewish people out of the Levant and all over the world. 

As the diaspora spread, they took with them the tradition of celebrating Hanukkah. 

I should note that Hanukkah is not actually one of the major religious Jewish holidays. For most of the last two thousand years, it was mostly considered to be a minor festival.  

It is considered a rabbinical festival, not a biblical one, like Rosh Hashanah or Passover. Sabbath prohibitions are in place for several high holy days, but that is not the case for Hanukkah. 

Hanukkah became popularized in the 20th century, largely due to its proximity to Christmas. 

Hanukkah is always on the same dates on the Jewish calendar, but it falls on different days on the Gregorian Calendar. This is because the Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar calendar. Unlike a true lunar calendar, such as the Islamic calendar, dates are usually around the same time of year on a solar calendar, but not the exact same dates. 

Because Hanukkah is always in December, for at least part of the eight days, it has been rolled up into the greater holiday season. Just as Christmas has become commercialized, so too has Hanukkah. 

There are several Hanukkah traditions and symbols that most Jews practice. These traditions can differ as Hanukkah practices diverged over the centuries between Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and other Jewish groups. 

The most obvious symbol is the menorah. A Hanukkah menorah is not a replica of the menorah that was in the temple. The temple menorah had seven branches, one for each day of the week.

A Hanukkah menorah will usually have nine branches. Four on either side and one in the middle.  Each branch in a modern Hanukkah menorah will usually hold a candle, whereas, as I mentioned before, the temple menorah burns olive oil. 

The four branches on either side represent the eight days of Hanukkah, and the center is used to hold a candle to light all the others. Every night on Hanukkah, an additional candle is lit. The total number of candles required to celebrate Hanukka is 44, which is just 2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9.

Blessings are often said when the candles are being lit, and the lighting of the candles is often a family affair in each household. 

Another popular symbol of Hanukkah is the dreidel. A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top. On each of the four sides is a Hebrew character, which is supposed to represent the first letters of the words “Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” which means “a great miracle happened there.”

The dreidel is not an ancient device. It comes from a European toy that was normally used for gambling called a teetotum. 

The game involves players usually betting on something like pieces of candy, raisins, or pennies. 

At the beginning of a turn, everyone puts one item into the pot. The first player spins the dreidel, and depending on what comes up, either they do nothing, take the entire pot, take half the pot, or add to the pot. 

Mathematical analysis of the game has shown that the first player has a decided advantage over everyone else. 

Another tradition is Hanukkah gelt, which is the Yiddish word for Hanukkah money. This is a tradition of giving children small coins, and today, the coins are often just chocolate in a foil wrapper that looks like a coin. 

Finally, as with pretty much any festivity, there is food. Popular Hanukka foods are usually cooked in oil, ideally olive oil, to commemorate the miracle. Two common foods are potato pancakes, known as latkes, and some form of deep-fried donut.

For all of those who celebrate, have a Happy Hanukkah. For those of you who don’t, hopefully, you have a better appreciation of the festival, which dates back to an uprising that took place over 2,100 years ago.