Hanukkah begins at sundown on Dec. 16 and ends the evening of Dec. 24. Flickr
On Tuesday evening, Jews will light their menorahs for the first night of Hanukkah. Also known as the Festival of Lights, the Jewish holiday begins at sundown on Dec. 16 and ends the evening of Dec. 24. The eight-day holiday celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C., when Jews led by the Maccabees revolted against their Greek-Syrian oppressors.
Each night of the eight-day holiday is marked by giving gifts, eating latkes and lighting a candelabra, or menorah. While Hanukkah may be one of the best-known Jewish holidays, it’s not the most important, nor does it bear much religious significance. In fact, the Hanukkah story isn’t mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It’s described in the Book of Maccabees, which is omitted from the Old Testament.
In the United States and other Western nations, however, Hanukkah becomes a “Jewish Christmas” of sorts. According to a 2010 study, “The importance of Hanukkah among American Jews is driven by its proximity (in the time dimension) to Christmas,” Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav and Oren Rigbi wrote in the study published in the Economic Journal. “Many American Jews use Hanukkah as a way to provide their children with an exciting alternative.”
But in Israel, “it’s a holiday, but it’s not so special,” Einav told the Washington Post in a 2011 interview. Schools are let out during the holiday and there are tons of festivals and concerts, but holiday shopping isn’t the main focus.
For those not familiar with the Festival of Lights, below are five answers to common questions surrounding the popular Jewish holiday:
What’s the Hanukkah story?
The Hanukkah story celebrates two events. The first describes how a small army of Jews, led by the Maccabee brothers, defeated the Seleucid Greco-Syrian Empire in Jerusalem. At the time, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the Jewish religion, desecrated the Second Temple and made Jews sacrifice pigs — a non-kosher animal — on its altar.
After the Maccabees defeated the Greeks, they rededicated the Second Temple. To do so, they needed to light the menorah — a candelabra inside the temple that was part of daily Temple service — each night. The Maccabees were able to do so with a small drop of oil that lasted for eight nights. The event is considered a miracle since it gave the Maccabees enough time to find a fresh batch of oil.
First Reading for this day – 2 MC 7:1, 20-31
What has God said to both Jews and Christians in Maccabees about life? (Some Protestants do not have Maccabees in their Bibles, but they should note that the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukkah, was enjoined upon the Jews to be celebrated only in Maccabees. John 7 tells of Jesus going up to Jerusalem to celebrate this feast. So Jesus concurred with the Jews and honored the injunction of Maccabees as given by His Father and recorded in holy writ.)
“Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother,
who saw her seven sons perish in a single day,
yet bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord.
Filled with a noble spirit that stirred her womanly heart with manly courage,
she exhorted each of them
in the language of their ancestors with these words:
“I do not know how you came into existence in my womb;
it was not I who gave you the breath of life,
nor was it I who set in order
the elements of which each of you is composed.
Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe
who shapes each man’s beginning,
as he brings about the origin of everything,
he, in his mercy,
will give you back both breath and life,
because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.”
The response of this heroic woman’s son before his life was ended in accordance with an unjust law is also worth noting:
She had scarcely finished speaking when the youth said:
“What are you waiting for?
I will not obey the king’s command.
I obey the command of the law given to our fathers through Moses.
But you, who have contrived every kind of affliction for the Hebrews,
will not escape the hands of God.”
Our laws do not excuse us before God this day or on our particular judgment day, so our choices matter for our eternity. What we choose to do with our freedom matters in life and in death. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to choose wisely and form our consciences as though our eternity depends on it.