Jewish Calendar Date: 25th of Kislev to 2nd of Tevet

In the 2nd century BC, the land of Israel was ruled by the Seleucid Empire; the Seleucid Empire controlled most of the territory conquered by Alexander the Great two centuries earlier. Initially, the Seleucid Empire was tolerant of the Jewish religion. The Seleucid ruler Antiochus III even granted the Jews a written set of legal rights; the legal edict ensured that the Jews could live according to the ways of their forefathers without persecution.

Bust of Antiochus IV at the Altes Museum in Berlin.

Bust of Antiochus IV at the Altes Museum in Berlin

However, in 168-7 BC the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV ‘Epiphanies’ ((This means ‘God Manifest’ in Greek)), litigated oppressive measures to expunge his empire of Judaism ((This was an unusual decision since the Greeks were generally pluralistic and tolerant of other religions. Scholars continue to debate why Antiochus IV decided to do what he did. See here for a more detailed account of the historical background and here for the different reasons given for the religious persecutions.

Antiochus IV banned the most essential practices in Jewish tradition – Jewish circumcision and observance of the Jewish Sabbath. He decreed that animals considered profane under Jewish law be sacrificed in the sacred Jewish Temple in honor of Zeus. Through this decree of killing animals in the Temple, Antiochus intended to destroy the will, tradition and culture of the Jews thereby destroying them as a people. This aim was further advanced by the Antiochus’ order to burn all copies of the Jewish Bible.

Jewish tradition and law took into consideration that Jews were compelled to live outside their homeland, the land of Israel.  Thus Jewish law teaches that Jews are obligated to respect local laws and rulers. Jews would follow the laws of the land and contribute to the local societies. They ask only that the host nation allow them to practice their tradition in peace.

Circumcision, observation of Shabbat and the Jewish Temple Ritual are central tenets of Jewish holy life and are not subject to secular interference. Antiochus IV crossed the threshold from secular to sacred thereby threatening the spiritual and physical existence of the Jews.

In response to this existential threat, Jewish inhabitants rose up in rebellion against Antiochus IV’s malevolent decrees. The Maccabee family held the vanguard of the rebel cause. The Maccabees were a family of priests led by Matityahu. Matityahu had five sons: Judah, Jonathan, Simeon, Elazar and Jochanan. In four successive military victories, the Maccabees expelled most of the Greek contingent from the region of Jerusalem and regained control of the Jewish Temple in 164 BC. In 140 BC, the Maccabees gained full political independence for the Jews. The Maccabees ruled the Jews and the land of Israel during in what is referred to as the Hasmonean period (163-140 BC) ((“Hasmonean” is a term used by later sources to refer to the Maccabees such as the Talmud.)).

>After regaining control of the Jewish Temple, the Maccabees ritually purified the Temple that had been profaned by Antiochus. Once purified the temple was again the center for Jewish worship. Jews throughout the ancient world declared a permanent eight-day holiday in honor of the re-consecration of the Jewish Temple and the victory over the Greeks. The holiday is held at the end of the Jewish month of Kislev, the date of Temple’s rededication. The holiday’s name – “Hanukkah” or dedication in Hebrew – is in reference to this rededication.

A later tradition associated the sacred candelabrum, or “Menorah” that illuminated the inside of the Temple with the Temple’s purification. According to the tradition, when the Maccabees liberated the Temple, there was only enough holy oil to last one day. Yet miraculously the oil lasted eight days. As a result of this tradition, the holiday is closely associated with lights and oil.


menorahThe primary symbol of Hanukkah is the menorah, a candelabrum with nine branches ((This is to differentiate the household menorah from the Temple menorah, which only has seven candle holders.))- eight to hold the main candles, representing the days of the holiday, and a ninth to hold an assisting candle or “shamash” used to light the other eight.  Every night one candle is added to the left of the previous candle until the eighth day when the menorah is full.  The candles are lit from the right side to left side of the candelabrum with the “shamash“. Jews traditionally place menorahs in windows or porches so that all can see the commemoration of the Jewish victory and the miracle of the oil lamp. In Hebrew this act is called “pirsummei nissa” or a proclamation of the miracle.

In addition to lighting candles, Jews traditionally sing the hymn “Ma’oz Tzur”. Ma’oz Tzur is a poem from the 13th century CE, which recalls the trials and tribulations of the Jews from their slavery in Egypt until their victory over the Greeks. Here is a recording of the song along with the Hebrew lyrics.

Hanukah is a festival with no work prohibitions such as Rosh Hashana or Sukkot. As a celebration of the victorious return of Jewish tradition when all seemed lost, Hanukah is a time of enjoyment; parents give their children money, sweets and presents. Many festivals and events take place during this time. In Israel, visits to archaeological sites of Macabbean battles are common.


Hanukah is a holiday known for fried food. The oiled used to fry the food is symbolic of the oil used to light the Temple menorah. One such food is called a latke, a kind of fried potato patty. Another popular food on Hanukah is the jelly doughnut or “sufganiya” in Hebrew, a doughy confection sprinkled with sugar and filled with jelly, chocolate or caramel.


It is customary to greet Jews with “Hanukah Sameach” or “Happy Hanukah” during this holiday.

Published: 27-02-2012