The Meaning of Hanukkah

The Maccabean books describe very important events of the liberation war of the Jewish people against Greek domination in Judea from the time of Alexander the Great (336-323 BC). His vast military campaigns against nearly the entire ancient world (including Egypt, Judea, Persia and India) allowed him to establish an enormous kingdom. Following his death, his empire disintegrated into warring kingdoms vying for territory and influence from 323 to 301 BC.


Especially in the Middle East, this led to the creation of Hellenistic states ruled by Greek nobility who promoted Greek culture. Syria was ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, and neighboring Egypt conquered by the Ptolemies.


The events that inspired the celebration of Hanukkah took place during a particularly turbulent period in Jewish history. Around 200 BC Judea (also known as the Land of Israel), came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria. He allowed the Jews to continue to practice their religion, however; his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, turned out to be less benevolent.  Ancient sources report that he outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship the Greek gods.


In 168 BC, Antiochus' army captured Jerusalem, murdering thousands of people within the city and desecrated the Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and burying pigs within its walls. These actions led to an uprising known in history as the Maccabean War (167 to 160 BC) and the Seleucid Empire was defeated by the Jews who regained their independence. The Kingdom of Judah was restored and ruled by the Hasmonean (Maccabean) dynasty until the accession to the throne of Herod the Great in 37 BC.


Following the victory, the work of cleansing and consecrating the Temple was recorded in 1 Maccabean:

“And Judas and his brothers said, Behold, our enemies are broken; let us go up to cleanse and renew the sanctuary. And all the army gathered together and went up Mount Zion. And they saw that the sanctuary was desolate, the altar defiled, the gates burned, and in the forest or on some mountain, plants grew, and the storehouses were destroyed, and they tore their clothes, wept bitter weeping and poured ashes on their heads, and fell on their face to the ground and sounded their trumpets and shouted to heaven to fight against those in the fortress, until he cleans the sanctuary.


And he chose blameless priests, zealots of the law. They cleansed the sanctuary and carried the defiled stones to an unclean place. Then they discussed the defiled altar of burnt offering, what to do with it. And a good idea came to them to destroy it, so that it would not ever serve them as reproach, since the pagans defiled him; and they destroyed the altar, and laid the stones on the mount of the temple in a decent place, until the prophet came and gave an answer concerning them.


They took up whole stones according to the law, and built a new altar as before; then they built shrines and the interior of the temple and consecrated the porches; arranged a new sacred utensil and brought into the temple a seven-branched candlestick and an altar of burnt offerings and incense and a meal; and they burned incense on the altar, and lit lamps on the seven-branched candlestick, and lit the temple; And they put bread on the table, and hung up the curtains, and finished all the work that they had undertaken.


On the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month - this is the month of Kislev - one hundred and forty-eight years (165 BC), they got up very early and offered a sacrifice according to the law on the newly built altar of burnt offerings. At that time, on the very day on which the pagans defiled the altar, it was renewed with songs, zithers, harps and cymbals.


And all the people fell on their faces and prayed and sent thanksgiving to heaven to him who had made a good haste. Thus they renewed the altar for eight days with joy, offering burnt offerings and offering up the sacrifice of salvation and praise. And they adorned the front of the temple with crowns and shields of gold, and renewed the gates and vaults, and made doors for them. And there was very great joy among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was turned away.


 And Judah and his brethren and all the congregation of Israel ordained that the days of the renewal of the altar should be celebrated with gladness and joy in due season, eight days every year, from the twentieth day of the month of Kislev "     (4: 36-54).


The main book which recorded Jewish traditions, the Talmud, also describes an extraordinary miracle that happened that day. The soldiers found only one vessel which had been sealed by the high priest, with enough oil to keep the menorah burning for one day in the Temple. They used this vessel, but the lamp continued to burn for eight days (which is the time it takes to squeeze out new oil). This event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim an annual eight-day holiday.

It is not known for certain when the celebration of this event became widespread among the Jewish people but it is interesting to note that the Gospel of John tells how Jesus came to Jerusalem,

Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter.  And Jesus walked in the temple, tin Solomon’s porch” (John 10: 22-23).

Jesus came to Jerusalem from Galilee, near Capernaum and the trip to Jerusalem took several days. It was not an easy journey which indicates the holiday of renewal was important to Jesus. During His lifetime, there was only one winter holiday (the 25th day of the month of Kislev which corresponds to one of the days in November-December of the Gregorian calendar), Hanukkah, which means renewal or consecration. It is noteworthy that the date of Christmas is celebrated in the winter month of December on the 25th (but it may not make as much sense as the date of January 7 of the Gregorian calendar, adopted by the Orthodox Church, which corresponds to December 25 of the Julian calendar).


How do the Jewish people celebrate this eight day holiday? First of all, since this holiday was not directly commanded in the law of Moses (Torah), it is a secondary holiday and there is no ban on activities considered to be work and  people may go to work and carry on their normal daily routine. By contrast, there are strict decrees related to the observance of the Sabbath and the main pilgrimage holidays (Easter, Pentecost and Feast of Tabernacles).


In Europe and especially in the United States (home to the largest Jewish community in the world), Hanukkah has gained special significance and is widely celebrated. To some extent, it is also recognized among the non-Jewish population of the United States which may be because the month of December with festivities celebrated between Thanksgiving and the observance of the Nativity of Christ. Because there is influence between Jewish and Christian traditions, children are presented with gifts for the Hanukkah holiday, which has no precedent in an earlier period of history.


There are other wonderful traditions to celebrate Hanukkah and the most important of them is the lighting of nine candles in a candelabra, the Chanukiah, which resembles (and often mistaken for) the Menorah, a seven-branched candlestick used in the temple.


The Chanukiah candelabra consists of nine candles including the main candle in the center which is called shamash (in Hebrew) and the first one to be burned on the first day, according to the instruction of the famous Rabbi Hillel. An additional candle is lit every day of the festival, typically in the evening according to the Jewish calendar. The nine candlesticks are all different and can be purchased or homemade.


Delicious food is also an important part of the tradition of Hanukkah and during the week it is customary to eat sweet donuts (sufganiyot) fried in oil and potato pancakes know as called latke. The entrance doors of houses, apartments, balconies and shops are decorated with garlands and lights and these traditions are likely to create an equal sense of celebration for non-religious Jews and non-Jewish people in the diaspora (living outside of Israel).


Although Christmas is a wonderful holiday, it remains a controversial question whether the disciples of Jesus celebrated it in Jerusalem, Judea, and later in the diaspora. It is clearly established, however; that the observance and celebration of Hanukkah was already widespread during the time of Jesus.

History of Archaeological Survey of Modi'in

The synagogue of Um El Umdan
The synagogue of Um El Umdan

In 1 Book of Maccabees and the writings of Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius, there is a story about the beginning of the events that led to the rebellion against the Greco-Syrian rule in Judea.



Mattathias (Mattatiyahu) the priest of the Hasmonean clan and his five sons lived in the settlement of Modi'im (or Modi'in  or Modin) in the Judean Highlands. During the rebellion, Mattathias and his sons, John (Yochanan) nicknamed Kaddesh, Simon (Shimon), Mathes, Judah-Maccabee (Maccabi, Eleazar-Avaran) and Jonathaya-Apfusimi, became national heros, 

 "And they came from the king to the city of Modin, who were forcing them to apostasy, to offer sacrifices. And many from Israel joined them; but Mattathias and his sons stood firm.


And those who had come from the king answered and said to Mattathias: You are the leader, you are glorious and great in this city, and you have support in sons and brothers.


So now come first and fulfill the king's command, as all the peoples and men of Judah and those who remained in Jerusalem did, and you and your house will be among the friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts. ...

And Mattathias answered and said with a loud voice: If all the nations in the kingdom of the king listen to him and each depart from the worship of their fathers, and agree to his commands, then I and my sons and my brothers will walk according to the covenant of our fathers.


God have mercy on us to leave the law and regulations! We will not listen to the words of the king in order to deviate from our worship to the right or to the left. When he stopped speaking these words, a Jewish man came up in front of everyone's eyes to offer, at the command of the king, the sacrifice to the idols on the altar that was in Modin.


Seeing this, Mattathias was jealous, and his insides trembled, and his fury was kindled according to the law, and he ran up and killed him at the altar.

And at the same time he killed the king's husband, who was forcing him to offer sacrifice, and he destroyed the altar " (1 Maccabees 2:15-25). 


The ancient Medva map (6th century AD) shows the settlement of Modiin, which suggests it was present at the beginning of the Maccabean uprising. The city were I live, Modiin, was built in 1993 and is presumed to be located on the  site of the ancient settlement of the same name from 167 BC. 


Modern Modi'in

Excavations of Um El Umdan, the possible site of Modi'in

The ancient street excavations of Um El Umdan
The ancient street excavations of Um El Umdan

Excavation of the area was carried out in 2000-2001 by archaeologists Alexander Omm and Shlomit Veksler-Bdolakh.


The site is believed to be ancient Modi'in, from which the famous Maccabean revolt began and spread across Judea.


The archaeological ruins are from the period of the Second Jerusalem Temple (before 70 AD) and include a system of streets, dwellings, a synagogue and a ritual bath.


The synagogue ruins date to a period earlier than the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple, just a few from that period have been found in the land of Israel. The synagogue was built during the Maccabean period and is the oldest in the country. The timeline confirms that the function of the early synagogue was not a desire to replace the Temple service, but other activities occurred here. In the Temple, divine services were held and sacrifices were made, but the synagogue served as the educational and community center of the Jewish settlements.


 Among the ruins of the settlement, a wine press, a columbarium and a cistern for collecting rainwater were also found. 

A wine press

The synagogue

Happy Hannukah!