That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.— John 1:9
Jesus’ Discourse on Hanukkah
In John 10:22–38, we read of a message Jesus preached at the temple during Hanukkah. Verse 22 records, “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.” Remember that “Hanukkah” in Hebrew means “Dedication.” Please take a minute to read John 10:22-38. The account begins with a questions from the Jews: “If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.” The name, “Christ,” is synonymous with “Messiah” and means, “Anointed.” It was prophesied that Messiah would come to deliver Israel and establish a kingdom. The Jews had a hard time believing that this man called Jesus was the Christ and demand a straight answer from Him. Indeed, Jesus Christ gives them a straight answer, but not the one they wanted to hear. The main points of this discourse are the following:
- Jesus’ works bear witness that He is the Christ
- Jesus’ sheep hear His voice and follow Him
- Jesus, the Christ, is able to give eternal life
- “I and my Father are one.”
- The Father has sanctified (set apart, dedicated) Jesus Christ
It is of no coincidence that the theme of this Hanukkah discourse is that Jesus was dedicated and set apart to be the Christ. He even mentions the Father sending Him into the world in verse 36. Not only is this the Hanukkah message, it is the Christmas message. Light is come into the world!
Hanukkah in the Time of Jesus
Although we do not have many details as to how Hanukkah was celebrated in the time of Jesus, we know a few things. From the account in 1 Maccabees, the celebration lasted eight days. Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived from AD 37–100, adds to the account in 1 Maccabees that Judas and his men “omitted no sort of pleasures thereon.” This implies that the celebration was meant to be one of joyfulness. Josephus also records Hanukkah as the “Festival of Lights.” From this term, we know that the light of the candlestick was a central aspect of the celebration. From Talmudic accounts, we find a debate between two Rabbis of the first century who argued on the method for lighting the candlestick. One Rabbi recommended that the menorah (candlestick) be lit all at once, and then for each following day, one less light would be lit. According to this Rabbi, this signifies how the Jew must combat sin with their full strength if they are gain to victory and obtain a holy life. The other Rabbi suggested that only one light be lit on the menorah for the first day, two lights on the second day, and so forth, signifying that the Jew should be always making progress in living a sanctified life. Jews eventually all adopted the tradition of the second Rabbi. Other traditions were adopted some time in the first two centuries as recorded in the Talmud regarding the Hanukkiah, the term for the Hanukkah menorah. One tradition regarded the placement of the menorah. The menorah was to be lit and placed at the outside entrance of the house, if possible. If the family lived on the second floor, the menorah would be placed on the windowsill facing the public. If the Gentile laws forbad the public display of the Hanukkah menorah, the menorah was to be placed on the table in the house. Another tradition recorded was to kindle the menorah lights from a different source. There were eight lights originally on the Hanukkiah (not to be confused with the temple menorah which had only seven). Instead of using the lights of Hanukkiah to kindle each other, the Hanukkiah had to be lit from another source. At some point, a ninth light was added to the Hanukkiah to make the lighting easier. This light was called the “Shamash (Servant)” because the sole job of the Shamash was to serve the other candles. After the lighting of the Hanukkiah, the Hallel (Psalms 113–118) was recited along with other thanksgivings and prayers.
Hanukkah in the Middle Ages
After the Second Jewish Revolt in AD 135, Roman Emperor Hadrian forced the Jews to disperse throughout the Roman kingdom. This event was called the Disapora. Intending for this dispersion to eradicate the Jewish identities and traditions, the Jewish traditions remained strong and flourished. Throughout the middle ages, Jews continued to celebrate Hanukkah. Either due to convenience or the difficulty in finding Olive Oil outside the Mediterranean region, Jews switched from using oil-lit menorahs to menorahs holding candles. Commemorating the miracle of the oil at the dedication of the temple, Jews began to celebrate Hanukkah by frying all their foods in oil during the celebration. During this time, Jews would fry fritters, doughnuts, briks (a pastry with egg filling, pronounced, “breeks”), and turnip latkes (sort of like hashbrowns made with turnips). One Hanukkah game gained popularity during this time—Draedl. During the time of Antiochus IV, the study of the Torah (Genesis–Deuteronomy) was forbidden. Jewish tradition says that children would study the Torah when the Greek soldiers weren’t around, and when soldiers came up, they would hide their readings and pull out their Draedl, pretending that they were playing the game all along. However, it has also been claimed that the game of Draedl was played by many throughout Europe and went by the name, “Totem.” Jews adopted the game and added Yiddish (a German dialect written with Hebrew letters) letters on the Draedl top.
The Draedl is a simple, four-sided top with letters instructing the player on what to do. Each player would put either coins, candy, or other “gelt” in the middle of the playing area. Each player would then take turns spinning the top. The four commands were: Do Nothing, Get All, Take Half, and Share (Put One In). The player who had won all the gelt won the game.
|Letter||Letter Name||Hebrew Word||Translation||Game Action||Game Action (Yiddish)|
|ש פ||Shin (Pe)||Sham (Poh)||There (Here)||Share||Shtel|
One interesting aspect of the Draedl top is the Hebrew acronym. Although the Hebrew letters on the top signify the Yiddish instruction, the letters also spell out a Hebrew acronym standing for, “A Great Miracle Happened There.” All Draedls made outside of Israel have these exact letters. Draedls made in the land of Israel change out one of the letters to signify that “A Great Miracle Happened Here.” This, of course, reminds the Jew of the miracle that took place when a small Jewish army defeated the superior Greek army during the time of Antiochus IV and also of the miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight days. However, born-again believers who personally know Jesus as the Dedicated Christ recognize that a great miracle did indeed happen there in Israel. Only, it didn’t happen on the stage of an exciting and glorious war. The great miracle happened in a lowly stable in Bethlehem.
Today, Jews continue much of the same traditions. Briks and latkes are still treasured (although latkes are now traditionally made with potatoes), and the Hanukkiah is still the centerpiece of the celebration. When the Hanukkiah is lit, two blessings are recited, and one additional blessing is added on the first day. After the Hanukkiah is lit, the family will sing songs of thanksgiving and prayer or even just fun songs kept for this joyous occasion. Families will exchange gifts and play games.
See this video for an example of a family celebrating Hanukkah in modern times: The Tublin Family