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Festival of Lights

editor - 2 December 2018

On the streets in Jerusalem, in Jewish homes, and even in many cities worldwide, Hanukkah lights are kindled, the first night one light, the second night two, and so on, until on the last night eight candles are burning.

The ritual is simple. At the lighting of the candle, a blessing is said commemorating the miracle of Hanukkah. Usually, the hymn Ma’oz Tzur Yeshu’ati (‘Solid Rock of my Salvation’) is sung. And it has become a custom to eat sufganiyot, a sort of doughnut baked in oil, referring to the miracle of the oil.

Hannukah celebrates the (re)dedication of the temple. The history is described in the books of the Maccabees. It happened in 167 BC. The Greek king Antioch IV Epiphanes, who ruled over Israel, placed an ‘abomination of desolation’ (1 Macc. 1:54, Daniel 9:27) in the temple in Jerusalem: a statue for the Greek deity Zeus. He also had pigs sacrificed on the altar. In an unparalleled attempt to assimilate the Jewish people into the Greek-Hellenistic culture, Sabbath, circumcision and study of the Torah were forbidden.

The elite in Jerusalem, among which many priests, had already adopted Greek culture. But the people in the land resisted. A clan of priest-farmers in the city of Modi’in, the Maccabees, started a revolt against the Greeks. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, the Jewish people succeeded in taking over Jerusalem and expelling the Greeks from the city. The temple was purified from idolatry, and on the same date as it was desecrated, the 25th of Kislew, the altar was rededicated. The celebration of the rededication took eight days, just like the eight days of the feast of tabernacles, and like the original dedication of the first temple. The temple was ornamented with crowns and bosses of gold and was abundantly lit. From then on, the feast of the dedication has been celebrated yearly. Jesus, too, celebrated the Feast of the Dedication in the temple (John 10:22).

The Talmud relates the story that, when they entered the temple and wanted to light the Menorah (the seven-branched candelabra), no oil was ritually fit for the Menorah. Finally, however, they found a small jar of ritually pure oil, just enough for one day. However, a miracle occurred: the Menorah burnt for eight days on this small amount. And this was long enough to produce new pure oil.

The word Hanukkah means dedication. Hanukkah is not just about lighting candles. It is about dedicating and rededicating oneself to a life by God’s Word. It is a Jewish thought that every human being is supposed to make of himself a temple, a sanctuary by learning the values of God’s Word. In this way, he spreads light into the world. That is how Israel understands her own being in the world.

This year, Hanukkah is celebrated from Sunday evening 2 December till Monday evening 10 December.

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