Festival of Lights

Drawing on ancient sources –
How do we celebrate the Festival of Lights / Chanukkah?


           Many in the Jewish community today feel that Chanukkah – the Festival of Lights – has lost its meaning. There is a feeling that it has become too much like ‘the other festival’ (you know the one!) in order to compete with it. In doing so, modern trends have succeeded in assimilating a festival that was supposed to celebrate a fight to reject the abandonment and assimilation of Jewish ways.

           Although the festival is not a biblically-ordained one, the Miqra does allow for ‘Days of Joy’ (see Numbers 10:10, where these are mentioned). These are days of national rejoicing. In Temple times, there were many such days, days on which it was forbidden to hold personal fasts. A second reason why we as Talmidis observe the Festival of Lights is because, being a festival specific to the communities of the Holy Land, it would have been observed by Yeshua` and our ancient community; although we normally pay no regard to the gospel of John, Jn 10:22 nevertheless records that Yeshua` participated in the ‘Feast of Dedication’ – that is, Hanukkah. By continuing to observe Hanukkah, we are carrying on their historical tradition as part of our unique witness to God, as their spiritual descendants and the authentic inheritors of their way of life.

           So how should we reform this festival? In the 1990’s, modern Followers of the Way decided to go back to ancient sources for inspiration.

The Festival of Lights in ancient times

           Since Chanukkah was a celebration of the victory of the Hasmoneans, it was originally not popular with the Pharisees; they viewed the descendents of the Hasmonean family as corrupt. As a result, very little was said about the Hasmonean revolt or Chanukkah itself in early Pharisaic writings.

           However, it seems to have remained a popular national festival with ordinary people in Erets Israel. We observe it, not as a glorification of the Hasmoneans, but as a celebration of how God enabled the Jewish faith to survive. And as a festival that was observed in the Land, it is a sign of our ancient heritage in the Galilee and Judea.

           The Second Book of Maccabees describes how people took leafy boughs and the fronds of palms, and sang hymns of praise to God (2Macc 10:7).

           Josephus says that at the first Hanukkah, when the altar of the holy Temple was being rededicated, people “celebrated the festival of the restoration of the offerings in the Temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon, but he [Judah Maccabee] feasted them [his soldiers and the people] upon very rich and splendid offerings.” (Antiquities, book XII, chapter VII, passage 7).

           In Josephus’s day, it was called the Festival of Lights (Chag ha-Neirot, or more strictly, ‘Festival of Lamps’). He didn’t know why it had been given that name, however. He writes: “I suppose the reason was, because this freedom [to offer sacrifices] appeared to us beyond our hopes.” (Ant, XII, VII, 7).

           It’s possible that thelights’ referred to ancient miracles, such as when Moses dedicated Aaron and his sons as priests in the desert. On the eighth and final day of the dedication, a fire descended from heaven and consumed the offerings on the altar (Lev 9:1, 24). This miracle occurred again when Solomon dedicated his altar for eight days (2Chr 7:1, 9). The book of 2 Maccabees gives these events as reason for eight days of Channukah; dedication was an 8-day process, and the rededication (‘chanukkah’) of the altar by Judah Maccabee, took place from the 25th of Kislev for 8 days. 2Macc 1:18 also mentions the festival as an opportunity to recall the miracle  of the fire of Nehemiah, when naphtha poured on the altar suddenly ignited – it says that this recollection was an actual festival.

           Harking back then to the pre-Maccabean ‘Festival of Lights’, here are the 8 ‘fire miracles’ one could recall during the days of the Festival of Lights:

  • Pillar of fire during the wanderings in Sinai – Ex 13:21-22, 40:34-38
  • Fire upon Elijah’s altar- 1Kgs 18
  • Fire upon David’s altar – 1Chronicles 21:26
  • Fire of Jeremiah – 2Macc 2:1-8
  • Fire of Nehemiah – 2Macc 1:22
  • Fire at Moses’s dedication of of the Tabernacle – Lev 9:1, 22-24
  • Fire at Solomon’s dedication of the Temple – 1Kings 8:11; 2Chronicles 5:14; 2Chronicles 7:1-9
  • The fire at the manifestation of God’s Glory on Mt Sinai – Ex 19:18, 24:15-18

The Lamps

           There is a special prayer called `Al ha-Nissim (‘We thank you for the Miracles’), that is recited by some Jewish people during the festival. It tells of how, while the Temple was being rededicated, lamps were kindled and placed all around the Temple courts. If this story is true, what a beautiful sight it must have been!

           In ancient times, the tradition of lighting lamps during the festival doesn’t seem to have been connected in any way with the Temple menorah (the story of the miracle of the vial of oil lasting for 8 days is a later rabbinic invention). In the Late Second Temple Period, the tradition of lighting lights or lamps wasn’t very widespread (consider how, for example, Josephus not knowing why it was called the Festival of Lamps). However, the practise did exist.

           Archaeologists have found special clay and stone lamps from the period. However, they have nothing to do with the menorah, nor do they even look like the Temple menorah. The lamps are long and rectangular in design, with eight parallel depressions for oil and wicks – one ancient lamp has also been found with 8 holes for wicks. And there is no “Shamash” or servant light. In fact, in Iraq and Persia right up to the early 20th century, Jews there still used to have these types of lamps (a simple row of 8 lights with no shamash). The practise of having a chanukiyah shaped like a menorah is a comparatively recent, European, Ashkenazi custom. The only consideration, if we follow ancient custom, is that there be a row of eight lights; it can be any shape or form.

A second Sukkot

           The first reason there are 8 days to the festival, is that it took 8 days to dedicate the altar and the Temple. The second reason is that it was considered a second Sukkot. There are many features of the festival which are similar to Sukkot; in fact, the author of 2Maccabees considered it a second Sukkot. They would carry branches of palms, and sing psalms of praise, as at Sukkot. Certain customs for Sukkot therefore got transferred to Hanukkah.

           One delightful custom during Temple times, was that giant Menorahs (that is, of the normal seven branched variety) would be lit in the Temple courts, their branches terminating in huge cups, into which the finest olive oil was poured. Four long ladders were placed against each menorah, so that priests could climb them to add oil continually to keep the lamps burning. Apparently the wicks needed to be enormous, so the worn out garments of the priests were twisted and used as wicks!

           The light from these lamps attained such an intensity, that much of Jerusalem was lit up by them. Then there was a torch dance, where young men enter the central courts, and acrobatically threw torches into the air and skilfully caught them. And among these torch throwers, there were dancers and singers. It was said that anyone who had not witnessed it had not seen what real festivity was. (see Joseph Hochman, ‘Jerusalem Temple Festivities’).

The Dedication of a Temple

           I also think that the fashion in which a Temple was usually dedicated will also serve to give us some ideas on what genuine Jewish customs to include in our reform.

           The best example of the 8-day process of dedication, is in 1Kings chapter 8, where King Solomon dedicates the First Temple. The Ark of the Covenant was carried in great ceremony and procession by the priests to the Holy of Holies, the building was anointed with oil and consecrated, solemn prayers were said, and sacrifices were made – not just of animals, but of grain too.

           In Zerubbavel’s time, when the Second Temple was dedicated (Nehemiah 12:27-43), thanksgiving hymns were sung, there were enormous choirs of people singing psalms, all to the music of cymbals, flutes, harps and lyres. Any customs we restore based on these, can be carried out in a final service on the last day – as a celebration of the completion of the rededication of the Temple.

Speculation on the original, pre-Maccabean ‘Festival of Lights’

           The Maccabees apparently took over an existing Judean festival (the festival of the fire of Nehemiah, 2Macc 1:18). They transferred the annual celebration of the rededication of the Temple onto a festival that was already popular among ordinary people. It was therefore already a festival of ‘the fire of the glory of God’.

           As I have previously said, Chanukkah was also supposed to have been a second Sukkot. I think this was another part of the original reasoning of the pre-Maccabean festival. One purpose of Sukkot is to pray for rain, and therefore a successful planting and harvesting. Once the fields are seeded, then there would often be little work for poor day labourers. Those who lived hand to mouth, would have had little opportunity to put by for the winter.

           Perhaps the Maccabean impetus to observe a late Sukkot (being unable to celebrate it in Teshri due to the Antiochan persecutions of the Jewish faith) was that there may have been a few years when there had been no rain, and therefore this would have impacted on the subsequent crops. If this happened, then the poor particularly would have been affected. Celebrating it, although late, might have been an oportunity to ask God to bring the Spring rains.

           During the period when the Jewish religion was forbidden by the Syrian regime, such a proscription would have had far-reaching consequences. For example, the poor laws (the laws on how to provide tsedaqah) would not have been able to function, the debt-cancellation laws would not have been put into effect, and the land would not have been given a chance to lie fallow during Sabbatical years. This would have resulted in severe hardship for the poor in winter, and if the land had suffered years of drought or bad harvest, traditionally-minded people would have secretly blamed the fact that they were not able to celebrate any of the harvest festivals to Yahveh.

           We know that giving charity is part of this festival. Even though all Jewish cultural customs were forbidden by the Hellenistic Syrians, they couldn’t forbid the moral and ethical aspect of the Israelite religion. If you couldn’t observe kosher or the Sabbath, you could still observe some form of charity in witness to YHVH. Perhaps it became a practice for the pious and well-off to keep 8 lamps in one’s window. Perhaps it served as a secret sign for them, meaning, ‘If you are poor and hungry, and come to my house, I will give you tsedaqah in the form of food, money or clothing, to help get you by during the winter.’

           Based on that premise, it is now customary in our community to give presents of either food, clothing or money. Restricting it to these, and limiting it to immediate family members such as only one’s children and parents, curbs any tendency to extravagance and financial burden; it’s enough to give friends and acquaintances only cards. Also, on the 1st day, or on the Shabbat which occurs during the festival, it is considered a pious act to give food, clothing or money to the poor and homeless.

           If you wish to have a day of rest for family and a meal, then the New Moon of Tevet is a good opportunity for such (all New Moons are holy days and days of rest anyway).

The real Miracle

           If we return to the Maccabean version of the festival, the real miracle was not the fictional vial of oil that kept the menorah burning for 8 days, but that God managed to save the Israelite religion from extinction. The primary purpose of the Israelite religion is to act as an eternal witness to the existence and power of YHVH – YHVH, who is a living God who promises and then does, who speaks, and it is fulfilled. Most people celebrate the Maccabees at this time, their triumph and their victory. But we should always remember, that it was not through any ability, strength, or cunning they possessed that caused them to triumph, but the power of YHVH alone. YHVH is forever, therefore the Way of YHVH has to be forever.

           God made a Covenant with us, to preserve us as a people forever, and to give us the land of Canaan forever. God instructed us to follow this way of life forever – into all eternity, so that this way would stand out as a single line of witness throughout all history. For as long as we followed this way – the Way of YHVH – it would be proof throughout all time of the power and the presence of YHVH, that He could keep His promise against all odds, and maintain His side of the Covenant throughout all time, even if Israel broke her side of the Covenant.

           The Way of YHVH was intended to be forever. If it proves to be otherwise – if it is made extinct, if people everywhere stop following it, then its demise is proof to the contrary – that our God is not holy – that He is in fact the same as any pagan god, that He is false, and that His words are empty.

           The Syrian oppression tested YHVH’s power and His promise. The Syrians were far mightier and more numerous than the Maccabees and their followers. I believe God intended it that way so that the events of the revolt could be an undeniable manifestation of His power and reputation. The few overcame the many, but only because of God’s help.

           As long as the Israelite religion – as long as the Way of YHVH – endures, God’s promises, His word and His existence all prove true.

The chanukkiyah and the nightly kindling of lights

          Our customs with regard to the shape and lighting of the chanukkiyah are ancient and non-Pharisaic. As I mentioned above, the 8-branched menorah is an Ashkenazi custom. In ancient times, the chanukkiyah only had to be a simple row of 8 lights, of any form or shape, but without an additional shamash light to light the other lamps from (ie you light the candles using a separate match or taper).

          The present rabbinic practice of lighting 1 light on the first night, increasing by one each night to 8 lights on the last night, is a practice which goes back to the Pharisaic school of Hillel. The school of Shammai followed the more ancient, pre-Pharisaic practice of lighting 8 lights on the first night, decreasing by one each night, until on the last night you light only one candle. This reflects the fact that the festival was intended as a second Sukkot, and during that festival, the number of sacrifices in the Temple was decreased each day.

          The lighting of the candles takes place in front of the whole household, and anyone can light them (you can even take it in turns each night).         

          On the 1st night, one lights the 8 candles, starting from the right to left. On subsequent nights, the empty candle spaces are on the left, and if you intend to place the chanukkiyah in your window, then you turn the chanukkiyah round, so that people seeing the chanukkiyah will see the empty spaces on their left. If you don’t intend to put it in the window, then wherever you place it, the empty spaces should be on the left of view.

          The blessing we say when lighting the candles is: “Blessed be YHVH, who has preserved Israel, and the eternal faith given to Abraham and Moses, and who has brought us once again to this season of joy, to enkindle these lights in remembrance of the Rededication of the Holy Temple and the Altar.”

          (the rabbinic blessing refers to the enkindling of lights as a commandment, but it’s not a commandment).

          One can then say the nightly portion of the Hallel Psalms (psalms 113-118). If one wishes, it is also traditional to sing either Ma’oz Tsur or Al ha-Nissim (for lyrics: Ma’oz Tsurand Al ha-Nissim).


Suggestions for our celebration of Hanukkah / Festival of Lights

          Bringing together the various threads and themes mentioned above, I would like to suggest the following for your personal enjoyment, celebration and beautification of the Festival of Lights:

  • That it is primarily a celebration of the rededication of the Temple, and of the right to observe and follow our religion, rededicating our lives to God’s ways and values
  • That as a secondary theme, harking back to the pre-Maccabean Festival of Lights, it is a time to remember the fire of the glory of God, and the miracles connected with it
  • That we celebrate the real miracle of how God saved the Israelite religion from extinction – how the few overcame the many, but only with God’s help
  • That we celebrate God’s ability to look after us and save us, even in the most trying of times
  • That we decorate our homes (particularly the room where we are going to hold the Seder) with greenery, either real or artificial, as if it were a sukkah (a booth); one can intersperse the greenery with artificial fruit (again, mimicking Sukkot)
  • That we decorate our main room with lights, as well as lighting eight lights or lamps on the first night, decreasing to one lamp on the last night (according to the older, Shammaite custom).
  • That there is charity and gift giving especially to the poor, restricted in nature to food, clothing and money
  • That we hold a seder (optional) on the opening of the first night, to remind us of the story of what happened in the times of the Maccabees, and remind us of the reasons why we celebrate Chanukkah (see the 1st night Chanukkah Seder)
  • we can give gifts to our immediate family at the beginning of the New Moon festival of Tevet (after the New Moon prayers), again restricted to food, clothing and money
  • that there is feasting and joyous celebration on the afternoon of the New Moon of the 10th Month (cf 1Sam 20:5-6, where New Moons are family feasts)
  • That there is singing (if you know any songs) and music
  • If one wishes, one can also have a final meal at the end of the last day of the festival, to celebrate the completion of the rededication of the Temple

           After your 1st night seder, ensure that you arrange for charity to be given to the poor (either that very night, or at a later date during the festival). The New Moon of Tevet will be the only religious holiday of the season (when no work is done). Since in ancient times, families chose New Moon holidays throughout the year for clan gatherings (1Sam 20:5-6), might I suggest having a meal with your extended family in the afternoon of the Tevet New Moon. You can also use this day (ie rather than the first night) to give your gifts to family members, once the candle-lighting and prayers for New Moon have been said. Having given help to others first, the gifts to one’s own family later is more meaningful.

Timeline of customs in the home during the festival

before sunset of 1st night: put up decorations

sunset 1st night: light 8 lights & say portion of Hallel psalms (if you are having a seder,

                            then light these during the seder)

daytime 1st day: give charity to the poor or homeless

                             (or on the Sabbath during the festival)

sunset 2nd night: light 7 lights & say portion of Hallel psalms

sunset 3rd night: light 6 lights & say portion of Hallel psalms

sunset 4th night: light 5 lights & say portion of Hallel psalms

                            (if tonight is the night of the sighting of the New Moon,

                             then give gifts to one’s family once the chanukkiyah has been lit,

                             and the New Moon prayers have been said)

daytime 4th day: earliest possible day for a family-gathering meal

                            (avoid holding on this day if it is a Sabbath – choose another day)

sunset 5th night: light 4 lights & say portion of Hallel psalms

                            (if tonight is the night of the sighting of the New Moon,

                             then give gifts to one’s family once the chanukkiyah has been lit,

                             and the New Moon prayers have been said)

daytime 5th day: 2nd possible day for a family-gathering meal

                            (avoid holding on this day if it is a Sabbath)

sunset 6th night: light 3 lights & say portion of Hallel psalms

                            (if tonight is the night of the sighting of the New Moon,

                             then give gifts to one’s family once the chanukkiyah has been lit,

                             and the New Moon prayers have been said)

daytime 6th day: last possible day for a family-gathering meal

                            (as it is the 30th day of the month)

                            (avoid holding on this day if it is a Sabbath)

sunset 7th night: light 2 lights & say portion of Hallel psalms

sunset 8th night: light 1 light & say portion of Hallel psalms

close of 8th day (before sunset): a final meal if one wishes

                            (to celebrate the completion of the rededication of the Temple;

                              you can also have a seven-branched menorah fully lit during

                              the meal if you wish)

after sunset at end of 8th day: take down decorations some time during the ninth day

Synagogue services

          As far as I am aware, no Talmidi sect or community currently has a dedicated synagogue. When we do, these will be the main synagogue services for the Festival of Lights:

Beginning of 1st Night: 6pm service, concentrating on the theme of Charity to those

                                      in need

New Moon Services: 6pm on the beginning of night before, the night of, and the

                                      night after the expected sighting of the New Moon

                                      (as per ancient custom); concentrating on the themes

                                      of the extended family and the wider community; main family

                                      service, as it is a holy day

Very end of 8th day: 3pm, concentrating on the theme of rededication,

                                      and especially the theme of the Rededication of the Temple


          However you choose to celebrate it, remember that since the festival is outside of the bounds of Torah and the rest of the Miqra (bible), there are no real commandments involved. It is not supposed to be a ‘holy’ festival (ie one ordained by God, apart from Rosh Chodesh Tevet), and there is no right or wrong way to observe it, only an honest way of remembering why we celebrate Hanukkah – a ‘Day of Joy’.