2 Chronicles 7:1-10New International Version (NIV)
7 When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. 2 The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. 3 When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying,
“He is good;his love endures forever.”
4 Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the Lord. 5 And King Solomon offered a sacrifice of twenty-two thousand head of cattle and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep and goats. So the king and all the people dedicated the temple of God. 6 The priests took their positions, as did the Levites with the Lord’s musical instruments, which King David had made for praising the Lord and which were used when he gave thanks, saying, “His love endures forever.” Opposite the Levites, the priests blew their trumpets, and all the Israelites were standing.
7 Solomon consecrated the middle part of the courtyard in front of the temple of the Lord, and there he offered burnt offerings and the fat of the fellowship offerings, because the bronze altar he had made could not hold the burnt offerings, the grain offerings and the fat portions.
8 So Solomon observed the festival at that time for seven days, and all Israel with him—a vast assembly, people from Lebo Hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. 9 On the eighth day they held an assembly, for they had celebrated the dedication of the altar for seven days and the festival for seven days more. 10 On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people to their homes, joyful and glad in heart for the good things the Lord had done for David and Solomon and for his people Israel.
We are a full month into our current sermon series on Rituals, Rites and Holy Days where we are slowing down and looking at some of the celebrations of the church, discerning together what these events mean and how they are or aren’t celebrated in our churches today. We’ve looked at two common practices in the church, baptism and communion, and we have looked at a traditional Jewish holiday that we in the church often don’t observe: Passover. Today’s holy day will fall into the second category as we are talking about Hanukkah.
As I prepared this message I realized that I have never heard a sermon dedicated to Hanukkah. Sure, we’ve mentioned Hanukkah and maybe looked into it a bit, but never have we spent our entire time together talking about Hanukkah. So to paraphrase the great Adam Sandler, Put on your yamaka, it’s time to talk about Hanukkah!
We know that Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, so let me quiz you just a little bit before we dig into our scripture for this morning. Can you tell me how many times the holiday of Hanukkah is mentioned in the Old Testament? That would be a big old goose egg, zero. There is one mention of it in the New Testament, and we will get to that shortly. But from Genesis to Malachi, there is no mention of this holiday. That’s because it didn’t become a holiday until what we call the “inter-testimonial period,” which means the time between the writing of the two testaments.
We find the story of Hanukkah in the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, as well in the Jewish commentary known as the Talmud. The first Hanukkah takes place around the year 167 BC, in a time when the Greek Seleucids or Syrians had control over Jerusalem. The Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, was in power and he was a strong advocate of the Hellenization process where the Greek culture was to be spread throughout the known world. The Greeks had the best government, the best religion, the best food, and the best practices…you know, according to the Greeks, and they wanted to make sure that everyone adopted this culture for their own good. Even if they had to be forced to do so.
Sounds kind of like they are full of themselves, doesn’t it. It gets worse. Antiochus IV believed himself to be a manifestation of God and outlawed all other religions. Jews were not permitted to observe the Sabbath or practice circumcision. The reading of the Torah was outlawed and the scrolls were destroyed, burned, and banned. Eventually, the practice of Judaism was outlawed, punishable by death.
Antiochus would go on to place statues of Greek gods around the city of Jerusalem, including in the Temple. The Temple was the most sacred place in all of the Jewish tradition, and Antiochus placed idols inside the building. And there on the altar, Antiochus sacrificed a pig to the Greek god Zeus, defiling the Temple, and ticking off the wrong guy.
A family known as the Maccabees, and their leader, Judas, led the Israelites in battle against the much larger and more powerful Seleucids and took back their land. Maccabee is the Hebrew word for hammer, so Judas Maccabeus became known as the Hebrew Hammer! The Hebrews would govern Jerusalem until they were overthrown in 63 BC by the Romans.
When the Maccabees took back Jerusalem, they made rededicating the Temple one of their primary goals. We find stories of dedication in the Old Testament in Numbers 7 and in our text today from 2 Chronicles 7. In the Numbers passage we find Moses dedicating the portable tabernacle and in 2 Chronicles it is Solomon dedicating the permanent temple in Jerusalem. In each case, there are prayers to be said, sacrifices to be made, and gifts offered to God. And of course, there is much celebration!
Within the tabernacle and later the temple was to be a special lamp called a menorah. Exodus 25 gives us a lot of details on how the menorah was to be built. It was to be made of pure gold with seven branches that held seven cups of olive oil, which was burned to give off light. But it wasn’t just any olive oil that was to be used. It had to be the purest olive oil that had been consecrated in an eight-day-long ritual. Tradition says that the original menorah in the tabernacle was 5.3 feet tall. That’s a lot of gold!
So when the Maccabees went about with their rededication of the Temple, they looked at Numbers and 2 Chronicles 7 to see how to do it. But all of the oil that was to be used in the menorah had been defiled and it would take 8 days to consecrate more oil. Thankfully, they found one jar of oil that had not been defiled. One jar of oil would usually burn for one night, but this is the miracle of Hanukkah. That one jar burned for…you guessed it, eight nights straight.
The word Hanukkah means dedication.
So with that background, let’s look at every occasion that the festival of Hanukkah is mentioned in the New Testament. That one occasion is found in John 10:22-24, “Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’”
John mentions the Festival of Dedication because the Jews are looking for a messiah to free them from the Romans just as the Maccabees freed them from the Seleucids. We aren’t ever told if Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, John just mentions it.
I’ll be honest, I don’t remember hearing much about any Jewish holidays when I was growing up. I would maybe see them on a calendar, but that was it. The one I did at least know of was Hanukkah and I assumed that it was kind of like the Jewish Christmas, only they got eight days instead of just the one that we Christians got.
But according to many historians, Hanukkah has not historically been a major Jewish holiday. If you rank the Jewish holidays, usually Passover is near the top, then things like Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, follow. Hanukkah is somewhere around 4th or 5th. Hanukkah seems to have risen to its level of prominence after World War II, in part because Christians became more aware of this holiday and because the Jewish community was searching for a way to keep their faith community engaged with their religion while the Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus.
I want to spend the rest of our time together this morning looking at three traditions that are almost universally practiced among Jews today on Hanukkah: the lighting of the menorah, the spinning of the dreidel, and the eating of latkes.
Let’s start with the menorah. If you look for menorahs online, you will find some with seven arms and some with nine. The seven-armed menorah is representative of the menorah used in the temple and the nine-armed version is to be used for Hanukkah. On each version, one branch holds the Shamash, or the servant candle. This candle is used to light the others, and is sometimes removable. It is always at a different height or place than the others. Originally, there would have been cups at the end of each branch, which held the olive oil. But the more modern ones have candles and some are even electric.
The modern Hanukkah menorah holds eight candles, one for each night of Hanukah plus the Shamash. A true menorah will have all eight candles in a row and at the same level, with the exception of the Shamash. Some families have one menorah, others have one for each member of the family. On the first night of Hanukah, which falls on the 25th of Kislev, the menorah is placed on a window or table opposite of the main entrance in a home. At sundown the Shamash is lit and a series of three Hebrew prayers are sung. These prayers translate as follows:
Blessed are you, our God, King of the universe. Who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah
Blessed are you, our God, King of the universe, who made miracles for our forefathers in those days at this time.
Blessed are you, our God, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
A single candle is placed in the farthest right arm and lit with the Shamash on the first night. The following night, after the prayers, candles are placed in the furthest two arms and they are lit from left to right.
The oil or candles must burn for 30 minutes, and they can be any color.
So what do you do during those 30 minutes? You celebrate! This is when families get out their dreidels. A dreidel is like a top, and dreidel simply means to spin. The dreidel is a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side which is intended to help remember the first Hanukkah. The letters are nun, gimel, hay, and shin, and they are a sort of acronym for the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – “a great miracle happened there.”
The game is played with candy or pennies. Each person puts one piece of whatever they are playing with, let’s say M&M’s, in the center of the table at the beginning of a round. If you land on the nun, you get none of the pieces. If you land on the gimel, you get all of the pieces on the table. A hay will get you half of the M&M’s. And if you land on shin, everyone is to chant, “shin, shin, put one it,” while everyone puts an additional piece on the table and you get to spin again. You play until there are no more pieces to play with. I have three dreidels and a rulebook, you may feel free to play a game or two after the service today.
Finally, I want to address one of my favorite Jewish traditions, the eating of fried foods. And you thought that eating fried Oreos and fried Twinkies was just something that you do at the State Fair! Nope, it is a part of a major religious holiday, my friends. If that isn’t reason enough to convert, I don’t know what is.
While any fried food is acceptable, the most common fried Hanukkah food is called a latke. Latkes are a fried potato pancake, sometimes mixed with other vegetables, various seasonings, and cheese.
Latkes are a traditional Hanukkah food tracing its origins all the way back to…about 150 years ago. Judas Maccabeus did not make potato pancakes to celebrate the rededication of the Temple on the first Hanukkah because potatoes don’t even grow in that climate or that region of the world. Potatoes have really only become a common crop in the western world in the last 200 years or so. So what’s up with the latkes?
Let me ask you why do we eat cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Eve, and ham on Christmas? Nothing says “Happy birthday, King of the Jews” like a spiral-cut ham!
A lot of these traditions say more about where our families came from than the actual religious practice. The potato became a major part of the German cuisine a few hundred years after it was first cultivated around five hundred years ago, and many of our North American Jewish neighbors come from Germany. The idea of the potato pancake has nothing to do with the potato and everything to do with the oil that it is cooked in.
Though the latke is the most common food, you will find Jewish families eating fried donuts and fried breads on Hanukkah as well. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you found some eating fried Oreos and fried Twinkies, too!
So each night of Hanukkah, you will find observant Jews lighting of the eight candles of the menorah, spinning dreidels, and frying foods in olive oil. All of these actions are meant to remind those who are celebrating Hanukkah that “a great miracle happened there.” But even more so, the Festival of Dedication is meant as a time for the people to rededicate, not only the Temple, but themselves.
Should Christians celebrate Hanukkah? You’ll find debates on both sides of this argument, and I’ve found arguments on both sides to be convincing. What we can’t argue is the need for us all to remember what God has done, and to rededicate our own lives.