History of Chanukah: The Festival of Lights


Today, at sundown, December 7th begins Chanukah. It is more commonly spelled Hanukkah; both are a transliteration of the Hebrew word חֲנֻכָּה‎ , meaning “dedication.” This Jewish holiday traces its roots back more than 2,000 years.


Events Leading Up to Chanukah

At that time, the Jewish people were living under the oppressive government of the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV (a somewhat ironic name — Epiphanes means “God Manifest”), a descendant of Seleucus, one of the generals of Alexander the Great.

When Alexander died, he left no legitimate heir (who survived); instead, his empire was divided among the Diadochi, his surviving four generals. For several centuries, the divided empire was ruled by the rival dynasties of two of his generals:

  • Ptolemy controlled Egypt in the south; Cleopatra was the last of his line in the first century B.C.
  • Seleucus controlled Syria in the north; his descendant was Antiochus Epiphanies IV, who ruled Judea in the 2nd century B.C.

During Antiochus’ rule, he forbade reading the Scriptures, circumcision, Sabbath observance, and several other Jewish religious practices.

To further promote the “Hellenization” of Palestine, conforming it to Greek culture, he set up an altar in the Temple of Jerusalem dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter (in Greek Zeus), where a pig was offered as a sacrifice instead of a lamb. This “Abomination of Desolation” (a phrase from the Book of Daniel in the Bible) caused the Jews to rebel in what became known as the Maccabean Revolt. 


Maccabean Revolt

Judas Maccabeus

Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, “the Hammer,” the Syrians were overthrown, and the Temple had all signs of paganism removed. The statue of Jupiter was ground to dust. A feast was instituted on 25 Kislew, 165 B.C., for the Temple’s purification and re-dedication. The story goes that the light of the Temple was relit with only enough pure oil to last one day but miraculously lasted for eight days until more could be found. The Festival of Lights is celebrated for eight days.


Customs of Chanukah

Chanukah Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus, Roman Forum

One of the most important Chanukah customs is to light colorful candles in a menorah or candelabrum with eight branches, one for each night of Chanukah plus one prominent one that holds the candle to light the others, for a total of 9 stems. On the first night, one candle is lit, and on each succeeding night, another is added so that all eight are alight on the last night. Some menorahs have seven branches, as described in Exodus 25:31-40.

I took this photo inside the 1st-century Arch of Titus at the eastern entrance to the Roman Forum, depicting Jewish captives being brought to the Imperial City as part of the triumph parade following the Fall of Jerusalem to Rome in 70 A.D. Note the menorah.


Chanukah Food

Because the Chanukah story involved oil, foods fried in oil are traditional for the holiday. Potato pancakes appear to have come to us from Russia. There, Jews made “latkes” or pancakes from various ingredients, from cheese to buckwheat flour to noodles. Legend says that women behind the lines, during the Jews’ fight against the Syrians 2,000 years ago, made flat cakes for the warriors because they could be prepared quickly.

Chag Urim Sameach!


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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