Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Chanukah is a Jewish holiday, also known as the Festival of lights. Chanukah is a Hebrew word meaning "dedication". It is also spelled Chanuka, Hannukah or Hanukkah. The first evening of Chanukah (called Erev Chanukah) starts after the sunset of the 24th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev.

Table of contents
1 Sources
2 Story
3 Chanukah today
4 Chronology
5 Dates that Chaunkah falls on in the standard calendar


The story of Chanukah is preserved in the books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. These books are not part of the Hebrew Bible, but are part of the Apocryphal historical and religious material from the Septuagint; this material was not later codified by Jews as part of the Bible, but was so codified by Catholics.


Chanukah was instituted by Judah Maccabee and his brothers in the year 165 BCE, to be celebrated annually with joy as a memorial of the dedication of the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. (1 Macc. iv. 59). After having recovered Jerusalem and the Temple, Judah ordered the latter to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one, and new holy vessels to be made. When the fire had been kindled anew upon the altar and the lamps of the candlestick lit, the dedication of the altar was celebrated for eight days amid sacrifices and songs (1 Macc. iv. 36), in a similar fashion to Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles (2 Macc. x. 6 and i. 9), which also lasts for eight days, and at which the lighting of lamps and torches formed a prominent part during the Second Temple (Suk.v. 2-4). Lights were also kindled in the household, and the popular name of the festival was, therefore, according to Josephus ( Jewish Antiquities xii. 7, 7), the "Festival of Lights."

In the Talmud

The miracle of Chanukah is referred to in the Talmud, but not in the books of the Maccabees. This holiday marks the defeat of Seleucid forces who had tried to prevent Israel from practising Judaism. Judah Maccabee and his brothers destroyed overwhelming forces, and rededicated the Temple. The eight day festival is marked by the kindling of lights with a special Menorah, called a Chanukiah.

A legend recorded in the Talmud says that after the occupiers had been driven from the Temple, the Maccabees went in to take down the pagan statues and restore the Temple. They discovered that most of the ritual items had been profaned. They sought ritually purified olive oil to light a Menorah to rededicate the Temple; however they found only enough oil for a single day. They lit this, and went about purifying new oil. Miraculously, that tiny amount of oil burned until new oil could be pressed, eight days. It is for this reason that Jews light a candle each night of the festival.

In the Talmud two customs are presented. It was usual either to display eight lamps on the first night of the festival, and to reduce the number on each successive night, or to begin with one lamp the first night, increasing the number till the eighth night. The followers of Shammai favored the former custom; the followers of Hillel advocated the latter (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 21b). Josephus thinks that the lights were symbolic of the liberty obtained by the Jews on the day that Chanukah commemorates.

The Talmudic sources (Meg. eodem; Meg. Ta'an. 23; compare the different version Pes. R. 2) ascribe the origin of the eight days' festival, with its custom of illuminating the houses, to the miracle said to have occurred at the dedication of the purified Temple. This was that the one small cruse of consecrated oil found unpolluted by the Hasmonean priests when they entered the Temple -- it having been sealed and hidden away -- lasted for eight days until new oil could be prepared for the lamps of the holy candlestick. A legend similar in character, and obviously older in date, is that alluded to in 2 Macc. i. 18 et seq., according to which the relighting of the altar-fire by Nehemiah was due to a miracle which occurred on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, and which appears to be given as the reason for the selection of the same date for the rededication of the altar by Judah Maccabeus.

Chanukah today

Before the 20th century, this holiday was a relatively minor one. However, with the rise of Christmas as the biggest holiday in the Western world and the establishment of the modern state of Israel, this holiday began to increasingly serve both as a celebration of Israel's struggle for survival and more importantly, as a December family gift giving holiday which could be a Jewish substitute for the Christian one. It is important to note that the view of Chanukah as a replacement for Christmas is not universally held, and many Jews do not place this extra significance on an otherwise relatively mundane holiday.


Dates that Chaunkah falls on in the standard calendar

See also: Chanukah rituals