A 2,000-year history of Chanukah

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Menorah
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For some, Chanukah may be one of the most anticipated holidays on the Jewish calendar, as it is a day that revolves around playing games of dreidel and giving and receiving gifts. However, much of what we associate Chanukah with today, from latkes to presents to chocolate gelt, may be far more recent inventions than many realize.

Earliest Chanukah celebrations


According to Yonatan S. Miller, the Philip Markowicz Endowed Assistant Professor of Judaism and Jewish Biblical Studies at the University of Toledo, Chanukah was first instituted in either 165 or 164 BCE in honor of the rededication of the Second Temple’s sacrificial altar, which had been “defiled in unprecedented religious persecutions led by the Seleucid Greek king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.”

“Our earliest Jewish sources about the holiday, which are in Greek, do not have a consistent name for this festival, although there are some indications that it might have been called Egkainia, which roughly translates (and might even sound like) the Hebrew ‘Chanukah’ (literally, dedication),” he said.

As for what took place during these early celebrations, Miller said that the most detailed records relating to them, the book of First Maccabees, are somewhat sparse on details. “Critically, there is no mention of a miracle involving oil and the Menorah, and there is no mention of any commemorative ritual lighting,” Miller said.

German Jewish soldiers hold a Chanukah celebration in Poland in 1916
German Jewish soldiers hold a Chanukah celebration in Poland in 1916 (Unknown author/Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, Miller said, the source only states that the eight days of Chanukah should be celebrated with “joy and gladness.” Miller added that the reason for its length stems from how, under Antiochus’ reign, the community was unable to celebrate Sukkot, another eight-day festival.

However, Rabbi Susan Grossman of Howard County’s Beth Shalom Congregation, reads the historical sources somewhat differently. “The 25th of Kislev, which is the date that is identified in the Book of First Maccabees as the rededication of the Temple, is considered the origin of the Festival of Lights, which is what [the first-century historian] Josephus refers to it as,” Grossman said. “We don’t have a lot of detail, but we do know there was some sort of ‘Festival of Light’ that was being observed in the first century.”

Grossman also noted that the final, edited version of the Babylonian Talmud includes a debate that took place between first-century sages Hillel and Shammai about the proper method of lighting candles, whether to light eight candles on the first night and remove one each night, or vice versa.

According to Miller, the very first Chanukah celebration was likely confined to Jerusalem and possibly to the community of Modi’in. He notes how some decades later the community in Jerusalem sent a letter to the Jews of Egypt, urging them to celebrate the holiday, which suggests Egyptian Jews at the time were not celebrating it.

Emerging traditions

More than half a millennium later, in 500 CE, the story of the oil lasting for eight days makes its first appearance in the Babylonian Talmud, written in what is now Iran, Miller said.

Young children light candles sometime between 1940 and 1951
Young children light candles sometime between 1940 and 1951 (Unknown author/Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Grossman adds that the Babylonian tradition includes a commandment to publicize Chanukah by placing the candles by a window, as long as it can be done safely without risk of a fire hazard or the incitement of religious persecution.

Grossman also noted another tradition that may go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years, of women not working for as long as the candles burned. Grossman explained that the origins of this tradition come from the Book of Maccabees, which recorded how “it was the women who kept the faith, and continued to circumcise their children even when circumcision was prohibited, often at great danger to themselves … and their faith is celebrated by women being freed of women’s work, cooking, washing, cleaning up, during the time the candles remain lit.”

Other traditions that are all but synonymous with Chanukah, such as dreidels and latkes, were apparently borrowed from European communities, Grossman said. Dreidels, she said, may have originally been played for raisins, nuts or coins. As for latkes, Grossman stated that they likely did not enter into popular Jewish cuisine until sometime after the 18th century, once the American potato became common in Eastern Europe. The potato’s inexpensive nature made it a sensible choice for impoverished communities, she said, while frying it in oil served as a connection to the story of the miracle of the oil.

American Chanukah

According to a legend that may not have occurred, Grossman said, a Jewish soldier in George Washington’s army lit Chanukah candles at Valley Forge. Washington asked what they were for and found inspiration in the tale of a small force overcoming a mighty one.

Chanukah in the United States did not begin to look like the holiday we know today, however, until the late 19th century.

“The truth is you don’t find too many references to Chanukah in early America,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “It’s clearly not a central holiday, and it was not a holiday of gift giving. Jews used to give gifts at Purim.”

Observant American Jews likely celebrated Chanukah, Sarna said, but it was initially a very minor holiday, and all it involved was lighting Chanukah candles.

This began to change as the nation neared the 20th century. With the rise of anti-Semitism in the late 1800s, Chanukah may have taken on increased importance because it commemorated Jewish resistance to assimilation.

Chanukah also became important to the Zionist movement, Sarna said, “because of the symbolism of what the Maccabees had accomplished in fighting off oppressors … the weak against the strong, the small against the great, and so on.”

One particular catalyst for change, Sarna explained, was the eventual explosion in the importance of Christmas. Though at one point the holiday was viewed with hostility by the Puritan community, and was even outlawed in Boston, Christmas grew in importance with German immigration in the 1800s. It became a national holiday at the end of the 19th century.

With all of the hullabaloo that Christmas began to entail, Sarna said, the Jewish community needed something that could serve as an alternative. “Young Jews, instead of feeling that they are unfortunate for not having all of the lights and pageantry connected with the Christian holiday, their parents can say ‘Oh, but we have Chanukah, and in fact you get it for eight days, not just one day.’”

Many elements of Chanukah became “Christmasized,” Sarna said, such as with the creation of Chanukah cards. In the end, some even referred to Chanukah as “the Jewish Christmas.”

Sarna added that the importance of both Christmas and Chanukah was heavily bolstered by commercialization, as stores saw clear profit in selling Chanukah gifts and related materials.

New traditions

Despite Chanukah’s growing popularity in the Jewish community, there were many prominent Christian Americans who had no idea that Christmas was not celebrated by their Jewish neighbors well into the 20th century.

“If you read presidential messages,” Sarna said, “all the way up to John F. Kennedy, they sort of assumed everybody observes Christmas and would send out Christmas messages that would be sent to leading rabbis.”

Only in fairly recent history, Sarna said, has the country begun to see presidential Chanukah messages and Chanukah parties at the White House.

Other fairly new Chanukah traditions, Sarna said, include what he called “the ubiquitous Chabad Chanukah menorahs,” which he believed began to arise during the 1970s, bringing what had primarily been a celebration for the private Jewish household into the public square.

But change is not done. The holiday is continuing to evolve and adapt.

Grossman noted one tradition emerging in popularity, where Jewish families dedicate one night of Chanukah to give gifts to charity.

“Families either decide together where to donate to or have their children go through what they have and choose things to donate,” Grossman said. “That’s a very lovely new tradition that also reflects Jewish values, and also is an Americanization of Chanukah.”

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