Defining the Miracle of Chanukkah

Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue
Defining the Miracle of Chanukkah
Many believers in all sects of Judaism look forward to the celebration of Chanukkah, otherwise known as the Festival of Lights or the Festival of Dedication, celebrated in the winter months. This year the celebration begins on the 12th of December (beginning of 25th of Kislev at sundown). Many were taught that the celebration represents the miracle of oil provided by G-d when the Temple was rededicated after the Maccabean victory over the Seleucid Greeks, specifically Antiochus IV Epiphanes. By the way, although this celebration is not mandated as a designated time of G-d, Yahshua did not condemn it and most likely celebrated it Himself as evidenced by John 10:22.

Three years before the first celebration of Chanukkah, Antiochus Epiphanes issued several decrees as a progressive effort to eradicate Judaism. The initial decrees were followed by other prohibitions that were aimed at the heart of the Jewish faith; observing the Shabbat, and circumcision, both commanded by the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Three months later, on the 25th of Kislev, the Temple was rededicated by the Greeks to the sun-god Apollo, which included the sacrifice of pigs, specifically designated by G-d as unclean animals. This resulted in a Jewish rebellion that lasted three years and resulted in a miraculous victory for the Maccabees. They tore down the defiled altar and dedicated a new one. The full name of the holiday, Hanukkat Ha-Mizbe’ach (Dedication of the Altar) reflects this military miracle. This is the true significance of Hanukkah; how G-d intervened and provided a victory for a bunch of untrained and ill-equipped farmers and priests against the Greek super-power who attempted to make them eat pork, defy the Biblical commands of observing Shabbat and circumcision, and forbade them from calling on the name of G-d.

Judah Maccabee and his fellow citizens celebrated for eight days and feasted on various permitted sacrifices; they honored G-d, praised Him with songs and psalms, and made it law that they should keep the festival celebrating the restoration of the Temple for eight days. From that time on, the Festival of Lights, perhaps so called because this right was brought to light. More on the Messianic perspective in a moment.

But this miracle seems to take a back seat to the one taught by the Rabbis as the main reason for celebrating Chanukkah. The festival of Lights seems to focus more on the story that the Maccabees only found a single curse of oil with an intact seal that could be used for relighting the Menorah. This posed a problem because purification from the dead takes seven days (Num. 19), so they were not permitted to work on making a new batch of pure oil until the eighth day. We are told the miracle was that the single contained of oil burned for eight days instead of one. This gave the Maccabees time to prepare more ritually pure oil.

This is a beautiful story, but where is the literary proof that this occurred? We must look back into credible sources written concerning this holiday to sort truth from myth and tradition. This is not always a comfortable process, but if we want to know the truth behind why we do what we do, why we believe what we believe, and why we should invest our lives following the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we need to be confident that our actions, traditions, and belief systems are credible and worthy to share with others.

The historical account pertinent to Chanukkah are described in great detail in 1 and 2 Maccabees, both of which were written not long after the battle took place. Both books describe the liberation of the Temple, but neither days anything about a miracle of oil. Rather, reasons for celebrating the holiday for eight days include the following:

The miracle that repeated itself during the time of Moshe and Shlomo, both associated with eight days of dedication. The dedication of the Aaronic priesthood by Moshe lasted eight days. On the last day of the dedication, a fire came from heaven and consumed the sacrifices offered by Aaron and his sons (Lev. 9:1,24). This miracle was repeated when Solomon (Shlomo) dedicated his altar for eight days (2 Ch.7:1,9). The book of 2 Maccabees mentions this as the reason for the eight-day celebration.
The second reason has to do with the fact that the Maccabees were not able to celebrate Sukkot as the designated time, so celebrating this miracle of G-d’s provision for eight days is logical. G-d provided a miracle (and a Messiah?) as Sukkot represents.

Josephus does not relay any information about a ritual lighting of a menorah as part of the annul Chanukkah celebration. For him, the holiday refers to gaining against all odds, freedom to worship and to follow ancestral customs.

The holiday in 1 Maccabees is instituted to celebrate the dedication of the altar (1 Macc. 4:59). This is how the name appears in Rabbinic literature. But the name as “Festival of Lights” was given by Josephus, who is the only ancient author who called it by this name. Why? He mentions nothing about lighting a menorah and he seems to be unaware of the custom/tradition followed to this day. He invents his own explanation: the freedom to worship had been concealed in darkness and is now brought to light (Translation note: “freedom to worship” is exousiai…tes thrêskeias in line 324, to which ten exousian refers in the last sentence).

Here is something extraordinary. Josephus’ explanation of the name seems illogical at first-pass examination, for his symbolism would imply the name “Festival of Light,” using an abstraction, and not “Lights,” plural; the latter clearly indicates a collection of actual lights. This plurality may cause us to think Josephus wanted to make a point that Jews should have the freedom to worship, and this delight should cause them to celebrate as “light” every year. Perhaps he wanted to gain sympathy from the Romans so that the Temple could be eventually restored. Recall that the dreidels used for this celebration have the Hebrew letters, one on each side that stand for “a great miracle happened here” as a covert way of teaching children about the miracle during precarious times.

Another reason for Josephus’ use of “Lights” may be that he did not want the celebration of Chanukkah and the lighting of the lamps to be interpreted as rebellious against Rome.

The story of the one vial of oil lasting eight days is not even mentioned in the Scroll of Fasting that is a 1st century document listing all the days of joy for the Jews at that time. This scroll was designed to provide the times when the Jews were not to fast, because fasting was done as a sign of mourning and/or sadness. Now, back to the issue of “Light.”

Thus far, we have addressed the fact that the miracle of oil is not substantiated in the ancient texts. The miracle that is consistently documented, is that of G-d’s provision for victory against all odds. But there is a deeper meaning to all of this that must be brought to “light” as a miracle beyond that of a successful military event. Josephus used the word “Light” in the singular form. Is it possible that he had insight into the conception of the Messiah that would occur so much later than his description of the Chanukkah event? Whether or not he had any insight into this miracle, it provides an interesting point for consideration. Celebrating Chanukkah as the “Festival of Lights” has more than one application as we have seen. But we must acknowledge that the miracle of Yahshua’s conception supersedes that of the Maccabean victory or any other rationale for its observance. The Chanakya used during this festival has 9 lamps with each being lit from a Shamash lamp. This has great import going back to the Tanakh which describes the Temple Menorah and that the lights are to shine forward. This passage informs us that we cannot shine without the light of the Shamash lamp and that we are to perpetually shine our light forward into the world, just as Yahshua our Messiah did and taught. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light so that the lamps may be kept burning continually. Outside the curtain of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, Aaron is to tend the lamps before the Lord from evening till morning, continually.’” (Leviticus 24:1-3)
The lampstand was the only source of light in the Holy Place, so without it, the priests would have been moping around in the dark. The light shone upon the table of showbread and the altar of incense, enabling the priests to fellowship with G-d and intercede on behalf of G-d’s people. Just as the lampstand was placed in G-d’s dwelling place so that the priests could approach G-d, Yahshua, the “true Light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9) came into the world so that man could see G-d and not live in spiritual darkness anymore. Jesus said:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” (John 12:46)
Yahshua is represented by the main branch of the lampstand, and we as believers are represented by the six branches that extend from original branch. Having believed, we are now living as “children of light” (Ephesians 5:8) who draw our source of light from Yahshua, the Servant candle/lamp, the true light. Yahshua calls us “light of the world” and commands us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 14, 16). Not only so, but the branches serve as a picture of Yahshua’s description of our relationship with him: “I am the vine, you are the branches …”

So, perhaps Josephus knew that his use the singular “Light” was and is correct. Yahshua, the Light of the world, was conceived during the season of Chanukkah. It is no wonder believers anticipate this holiday with great joy. But, we must take care that we do not add to G-d’s Torah by adding to it or subtracting from it. Let me explain.

The blessings over the candles contains a phrase that tells us we are commanded to kindle the lights of Chanukkah. This is not in G-d’s Torah and violates Deuteronomy 4:2, Deut. 12:32, Prov. 30:6, and Revelation 22:19. This may have been an innocent inclusion into the prayer, but we now have credible information that refutes any claim to its validity.

So, there is nothing in the Torah that prohibits the celebration of Chanukkah. In fact, I encourage it as a reminder that our Light of the world was conceived by a miracle provided by G-d in sharing a part of His Oneness with the world; that we cannot obtain or share light without drawing on His Light, the Shamash candle/lamp; and that just as He provided a victory for the brave Maccabees against a super-power against all odds, Israel will emerge victorious with the return of Messiah ben David (Who is also messiah ben Yosef), Yahshua HaMoshiach.

Amein and Amein!

Rabbi Tamah Davis

My gratitude to the scriptures, the prophets, and all who left documentation of the truth of the Chanukkah miracles described in this teaching. I also thank those who bring information to my attention for consideration, evaluation, and dissemination of that which is true, and fellow believers who seek the truth of G-d’s Torah and help to separate fact from fiction. May HaShem be glorified.