The Jewish Festival of Rededication, also called the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day celebration that falls each year on the Hebrew calendar date of 25 Kislev, which generally falls in December in the Gregorian calendar. (In 2021, Hanukkah is November 28 through December 6.) Hanukkah, also referred to as Chanukah, celebrates the rededication of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
The eight-day Jewish celebration known as Hanukkah or Chanukah commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. This group of Jews are known as the Maccabees. The name was formed from the first letters of a Hebrew phrase, “Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Hashem,” which translates to “Who is like You, God.”
The history of Hanukkah – much like the histories of many religious or ancient holidays – has various starting and ending points. The events that inspired the Hanukkah holiday took place during a particularly turbulent phase of Jewish history. Around 200 B.C., Judea — which is modern-day Israel/Palestine — came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria, who allowed the Jews who lived there to continue practicing their religion. His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, proved less benevolent. Ancient sources recount that he outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods.
In 168 B.C., Antiochus IV Epiphanes soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.
Led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, a large-scale rebellion broke out against Antiochus and the Seleucid monarchy. When Matthathias died in 166 B.C., his son Judah, known as Judah Maccabee — ‘the Hammer — took the helm. Within two years the Jews had successfully driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, relying largely on guerilla warfare tactics. The revolts turned out to be a success, and the Jews regained the rights to practice their religion in their temples. In order to do so, Judah called on his followers to cleanse the temple and light a menorah with oil that had been blessed by the high priest all night every night until the new altar could be built over the old one.
This is the gold candelabrum whose seven branches represented knowledge and creation and was meant to be kept burning every night. But, there was only one flask of oil left that would only last for one night. They lit it anyway and it stayed lit for eight days, the amount of time needed to press new oil.
According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most central texts, Judah Maccabee and the other Jews who took part in the rededication of the Second Temple witnessed what they believed to be a miracle. Even though there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a fresh supply. This wondrous event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival.
The story of Hanukkah does not appear in the Torah because the events that inspired the holiday occurred after it was written. It is, however, mentioned in the New Testament, in which Jesus attends a ‘Feast of Dedication.’