Chanukah – The Festival of Lights



The holiday of Chanukah was instituted by the ancient sages, to be celebrated for eight days as an expression of praise and thanksgiving to the Holy One, blessed be He, in commemoration of the renewal of the Divine service in the Holy Temple, which began on the twenty-fifth of Kislev.

Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Chashmoneans (Maccabean) warriors over the Greek oppressors and the renewal of the Divine service in the Holy Temple after three years of the Greek dominion over Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. During this time, the Greeks defiled and appropriated the Holy Temple, utilizing its altar for unclean idolatrous offerings and looted the Temple of its holy vessels. When the Chashmoneans gained the upper hand, they went up to Jerusalem and entered the Temple courtyards and chambers, a portion of which were either greatly damaged or burned, and purified the Holy Temple from the abominations of the Greeks.

The Chashmoneans rushed to recreate the holy vessels from iron and rebuild the altar. They also discovered a single jug of pure olive oil, with the seal of the Kohan Gadol (High Priest) still intact. This jug only had enough oil in it for one day. With the little they found, they rushed to fulfill the Torah commandments concerning the Holy Temple, and began the service once again, in sanctity and in purity, and thanksgiving to G-d - rejoicing that they were able to renew the Divine service immediately with the liberation of the Holy Temple from the hands of the enemy.



From a review of the various sources discussing the matter of the holiday of Chanukah, it becomes clear that the essence of the name 'Chanukah' - or 'Chanuchta' - originates from the 'dedication of the altar,' as stated in 'Megilat Ta'anit.' 1 (The word 'Chanukah' in Hebrew means dedication.)

The praise and thanks we give to HaShem is in gratitude for the rededicating of the altar, 2 since the altar is the main focus of the Holy Temple, as it was in the Tabernacle, as proven by the Torah calling the dedication of the Tabernacle and all its vessels and utensils simply "the dedication of the altar." 3 This is the main reason that it was determined that the name of this holiday would be 'Chanukah'. 4

In the writings of Josephus Flavius (Yosef ben Mattitiyahu), we find that this holiday is called by another name, and as he states there:

"On the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev... they lit the lamps of the Menorah, and brought offerings on the new altar... and Yehudah the Chasmonean celebrated with his townspeople the renewal of the service of the offerings in the Holy Temple for eight days... and from that time to this day we celebrate the holiday and call it Chag HaUrim - the 'Festival of Lights.'" 5



From the words of the Sages in 'Megilat Ta'anit,' 6 three miracles took place in the Holy Temple on the Chanukah holiday, and parallel to them the Sages amended three ordinances:

  1. Praise and thanksgiving
  2. Prohibition of eulogies and fasting
  3. Lighting candles

After building and consecrating the altar, the Sages ordained eight days of praise and thanks to G-d, as it is discussed in 'Megilat Ta'anit', "For what reason did the Sages determine to make Chanukah for eight days? The Chanukah [dedication of the Tabernacle] that Moshe observed in the desert was only seven days... and note, as well, with the Chanukah [dedication ceremony for the First Temple] that Solomon observed, was only seven days long... why, then, did the Chashmoneans make Chanukah for eight days?

This is because in the days of the Greek occupation, the Chashmoneans entered the Holy Temple, re-built the altar and plastered it, and placed the vessels into the Holy Temple. They were involved with its reconstruction and restoration for eight days,m and only after they completed their work did they offer praise and thanksgiving."

Following the discovery of a pure jug of oil the Sages established that these eight days would be days in which eulogies are prohibited, as the source reads:

When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all of the oil supply that was kept there. And when the Chashmoneans became victorious, they searched and found only one jug of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). In the following year, they set eight days for the holiday (in which eulogies and fasting are prohibited). 7

As for the ordinance to light candles, it is written there that it was in memory of the Menorah made of iron rods that the Chashmoneans had swiftly constructed:

"And for what reason did they make an ordinance to light candles?

Because the Greeks had invaded the Sanctuary and defiled all the vessels, there was nothing on which to light the lamps (that was pure). And when the Chashmoneans forces became victorious and returned to the Holy Temple, they brought seven iron rods (that were pure)... and began to light the lamps fixed on them."

A pilgrim prostrating by one of the thirteen breaches in the Soreg.




In the Mishnah there is a description of the havoc wreaked on the outer barrier of the Temple compound, the Soreg fence:

The outer barrier, which is ten hand-breadths high, had thirteen sections that were breached through by Greek officials. When the Chashmoneans returned to the Temple Mount, they fenced these areas and proclaimed that these points would be thirteen locations of prostration. 8

The Mishnah goes on to detail the location of these thirteen points for prostration. There were "four in the north, four in the south, three in the east, and two in the west - in correlation to the thirteen gates." 9

Early commentators write:

These are the thirteen places of prostration, according to the Sages, in the place of the thirteen places that were destroyed on the outer boundary by the Greeks… and the Chashmoneans fenced them off when they returned to the Temple… when one comes to a place along the wall that was breached by the Greeks, he must bow in thanks to G-d that the evil Greek forces were destroyed and uprooted. 10

The desecrated altar stones stored away in the Chamber of the Seals.




Since the high-ranking officials of the Greek oppressors misappropriated the outer altar and sacrificed animals for the purpose of idolatry, the Chashmoneans built a brand-new altar to replace the original one in the outer courtyard. 11 The stones of the altar, which were disassembled by the Chashmoneans, were placed in honorable safe-keeping in the northeastern room in the Chamber of the Hearth. 12 In Mishnah Tamid, this room is referred to as the Chamber of the Seals. 13

The following is the description from the Book of Chashmoneans regarding this matter:

"As for the desecrated altar of the Oleh Offering, they consulted about what to do with it. They acted according to the proper advice; to disassemble it, lest they be disgraced, since it was misappropriated by Gentiles. They set the stones aside in a special place on the Temple Mount, until a time when a prophet will come to instruct them what to do with these stones. Afterwards, they took whole stones, in accordance with the commandment in the Torah, and built a new altar, similar to the first one." 14

The Mishnah describes a special chamber in the Temple in which the disassembled altar stones were kept. As it is written, "There were four inner chambers inside the Chamber of the Hearth, and it was in the northeastern chamber that the Chashmoneans kept the stones of the altar that were desecrated by the Greeks." 15

Josephus Flavius, adds: "On the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Kislev,... In the early morning, they brought an offering, according to the laws of the Torah, on the new altar which they had made." His description is consistent with what is stated in the halachah (Jewish Law), which states that "a new altar, on which nothing had yet been offered... It is not to be consecrated except at dawn with the morning Daily Offering." 16

 the kohanim building the Menorah out of iron rods, and tending to the lamps.




According to the Book of the Chashmoneans, 17 the Menorah of gold was taken along with the rest of the vessels when the Greeks came and looted the Holy Temple. Antiochus IV Epiphanes traveled up to Jerusalem after his victory in Egypt, he entered the inner holy area and took the Golden Altar, the Menorah with all its utensils, and the Showbread Table. From this, it is understood what is described in the Talmud that the Temple Menorah of the Chashmonean days was made of iron rods. This is how they lit it in the beginning, and, later on, a Menorah was made of gold. As is stated in the Talmud: "They were made of iron, and they [the Chasmoneans] plated it with nickel [tin]. When they became wealthier, they made one of silver. They [later] became [even] wealthier and made it out of gold." 18

The Rishonim (early sages)comment: "When their hand [of the Chashmoneans] prevailed over the Greeks, and they drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem, and they purified the Holy Temple, they [Israel] were poor, and could not make it [the Menorah] out of gold." 19

The need to make a Menorah from iron skewers stemmed from the desire to construct a Menorah which would be ritually pure, since metal made in the shape of a skewer, and in its raw state before it is shaped, is not defined as a 'vessel that can contract ritual impurity.' 20 This is how it is stated in the Mishnah; 'raw metal tools', that is, raw metallic material, which is in the process of being made and is not yet finished being formed as a tool - meaning, it needs to be shaped, smoothed, etc. - this metal does not contract impurity. 21