12 Little-Known Facts About Hanukkah

This post first appeared on Kineti and is authored by Judah Gabriel Himango, one of Tabernacle of David’s teachers.

Artistic depiction of Judah the Maccabee, hero of the Hanukkah narrative

Some little-known Hanukkah facts. Some of these even I was unaware of until recently. Maybe they’ll surprise you too, fine Kineti reader. Click to each item to expand its details:

1. The books of Maccabees appear in the Catholic Bible, but not in the Jewish or Protestant Bibles.

Perhaps most surprising is that the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees are not found in the Jewish Bible, the Tenakh. The reasons for that are historical, and may be related to Jewish infighting between Pharisees and the Maccabean descendants, described later in this post.

Protestant Christians don’t include 1 or 2 Maccabees, nor any of the “deuterocanonical” books (Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Baruch, etc.), in their Bible.

Catholic Christians and Orthodox Christians include 1 and 2 Maccabees in their Bible, as it was included in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament/Tenakh. Catholics argue that the Septuagint would certainly have been known to and used by the earliest Christian communities, and since they considered it Scripture, modern Christians ought to as well.

2. “Maccabee” may have been an acronym for “Who is like you among the gods?”

“Maccabee” was originally a surname given to Judah, who led the Jewish revolt against the wicked Seleucids.

The name is believed to have come from the Aramaic maqqaba, for hammer or sledgehammer.

However, one Jewish work of antiquity, Josippon, writes that Maccabee was an acronym for:

Mi Kamocha Ba Elim Adonai
מי כמוכה באלים אדוני
“Who is like you among the gods, O Lord?”

Which is a Biblical phrase which is said to have been the battle cry of the Maccabees.

3. Judah Maccabee was killed in battle by the Seleucids

In modern retellings of the Hanukkah story, we often skip over the inconvenient fact that the main hero of our story, Judah the Maccabee, was killed in battle.

After a string of Maccabean victories during the first 3 years of the revolt, the Seleucids send their military commander Bacchides with 20,000 troops to squelch the Jewish rebellion. After a massacre in Galilee, Bacchides turned his attention to Jerusalem.

As Bacchides’ army approached, Judah Maccabee and his army of 3,000 realized they were greatly outnumbered. 2/3rds of them fled, leaving just 1,000 of Judah’s troops in Jerusalem.

Being outnumbered twenty-to-one, Judah nonetheless attacks Bacchides and forces their cavalry to retreat into the Judean hills. But soon, Bacchides’ main force surrounds Judah and his 1000 men, and Judah dies in battle. Bacchides retakes Jersualem for the Seleucids. The year is 160 BC.

At Judah’s death, Jews rally around the Maccabean cause. Judah’s brother Jonathan takes up the mantle as military leader of the Maccabees. Jonathan defeats Bacchides in battle, and later his brother Simeon does the same. By 141 BC – some twenty years after Judah’s death – the Seleucid occupiers are ousted from Judea.

4. Hanukkah dreidels in Israel differ from dreidels in the nations.

Hanukkah dreidels around the world have 4 sides, each with a Hebrew letter on them:

Nun – נ
Gimel – ג
Hey – ה
Shin – ש

Together, they make for an acronym:

Nas gadol haya sham
נס גדול היה שם
“A great miracle happened there”

But a lesser known fact is, in Israel, Hanukkah dreidels have a different letter on them:

Nun – נ
Gimel – ג
Hey – ה
Peh – פ

Israeli dreidels, called sivivonim, have a Peh פ instead of a Shin ש.

Why?

Because in Israel, we change the acronym to:

Nas gadol haya po
נס גדול היה פה
A great miracle happened here

😎

5. Hanukkah was originally a Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) celebration

In 164 BC, the Maccabees were unable to celebrate Sukkot in the way the Torah required – going up to the Temple in Jerusalem – because it was under Seleucid occupation and desecrated with idols.

But two months after Sukkot, on Kislev 25, the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, cleansing it of impurities and profanities that had been erected and dedicated it back to God.

With the Temple back in Jewish hands, the Maccabees decreed the celebration of a late Sukkot. This late celebration of Sukkot – a Biblical 8-day festival – became the 8 days of Hanukkah.

6. The Maccabees praised the Romans, who would destroy the Temple 200 years later.

The Maccabees quickly became diplomatic to the powers around them, looking for potential allies against the Seleucids. Before his death in 160 BC, Judah had struck an alliance with the Roman Republic. 1 Maccabees 8 records,

Therefore, Judah sent [a diplomatic party] to Rome to make a treaty of friendship and alliance, in the hope that in this way they would escape the yoke, for they could clearly see that the kingdom of the Greeks [Seleucids] was reducing Israel to a state of slavery. Following a very lengthy journey to Rome, the envoys entered the senate chamber and spoke these words:

“Judah Maccabee and his brothers and the Jewish people have sent us to conclude a treaty of alliance and peace with you and to enroll ourselves as your allies and friends.”

This proposal pleased the Romans, and this is a copy of their reply, which they inscribed on tablets of bronze:

“May good fortune attend the Romans and the Jewish nation at sea and on land forever. May sword and foe be far from them. But if war should be instigated against Rome or any of her allies throughout her dominions, the Jewish nation shall provide them with their wholehearted support as the occasion shall demand. To the enemy that instigates that war they shall not give or provide grain, arms, money, or ships. Thus have the Romans decreed, and they shall fulfill their obligations without receiving any recompense. In the same way, if war should be instigated against the nation of the Jews, the Romans shall provide them with their wholehearted support as the occasion shall demand. To the enemy that instigates that war they shall not give grain, arms, money, or ships. Thus have the Romans decreed, and they shall fulfill their obligations without any breach of faith. In these terms the Romans have made a treaty with the Jewish people. Subsequently, if both parties should decide to make any addition or deletion, they shall have the authority to do so, and any such addition or deletion that they make shall be deemed valid.

“Concerning the wrongs that King Demetrius is perpetrating against the Jewish people, we have written to him as follows: ‘Why have you made your yoke heavy upon our friends and allies the Jews? If they have any further complaint to make against you, we shall uphold their rights and make war on you by land and sea.’”

The books of Maccabees speak kindly about the Romans,

“Judah heard of the reputation of the Romans—how they were mighty men who favored all who joined themselves to them and made an alliance with all who came to them and were strong and powerful…”

Any student of the history knows the rest: Rome turns into an imperial dictatorship under various power-hungry, mad Caesars. They subjugate Israel, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD, and the diaspora of Jews into the nations.

It took nearly 2000 years to undo that damage – Jews returning to Israel en mass in the 1940s, Jerusalem returning to Jewish control in 1967 – and even now the Temple is still not rebuilt.

Perhaps this treaty with Rome was the Maccabees’ greatest blunder. One wonders what history would look like had the Maccabees not entered into a treaty with Rome!

7. Christianity is indebted to the Maccabees

The Gospels record events that take place 160 years after the Maccabean revolt. They record a Jewish boy being born to Jewish parents in a Jewish town in Judea. They record this Jewish boy was circumcised on the 8th day according to the Law of Moses. He was brought to the Temple by his parents and consecrated to the Lord. This Jewish boy grew into a faithful Jewish man who taught in the Temple, read from Torah scrolls in synagogues, and was revered by many as the Jewish Messiah.

All of those things would not be possible without the Maccabees and the events of Hanukkah.

Consider this: without the Maccabean revolt, Israel would have assimilated into Greco-Syrian idolatry. Jerusalem would have been renamed. Jews and Judaism would have ceased to exist. Jewish identity, essentially, was forbidden: no circumcision, no Feasts, no kosher diet, no Torah study. The Temple would be demolished, and the Bible would no longer exist.

No Bible + no Jews + no Israel + no Temple = no Messiah.

One could theorize that God would make another way, one that worked outside of the Jewish people.

But he didn’t.

Throughout history, God has used the Jewish people as a vehicle of his work in the earth. Through the Maccabees, God made a way that included the preservation of the Jewish people, such that the whole world would be blessed through Abraham. Indeed, we Christians are blessed because of this.

Christians are indebted to Jews, especially the Maccabees, for preserving the Hebrew Bible in the face of torturous death. For standing up for faith in the God of Israel when the world powers demanded apostasy. For fighting for the Temple, which Jesus called “my Father’s House”. By refusing to give in to culture and compromise on their faith.

In short, the events celebrated at Hanukkah enabled the events now celebrated at Christmas. Christians are indebted to the Maccabees for preserving Biblical faith and enabling the birth of Messiah.

8. Hanukkah was a minor festival until the 20th century

For the last 1900 years, Hanukkah has been a relatively minor festival in Judaism.

One reason for that is Jewish religious leaders have had mixed feelings about the Maccabees.

On Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) 153 BC, eleven years after the events of Hanukkah took place, Jonathan, brother of Judah Maccabee, was declared High Priest in the Temple. It began the Hasmonian dynasty – Maccabeean rulers – who later did truly wicked things.

The 3rd ruler of the dynasty, John Hyrcanus I, ruled as High Priest…but also looted the Tomb of David to pay the city’s ransom to Antiochus VII. He took a Greek name (“Hyrcanus”) in acceptance of the Hellenists who had fought against the Maccabees. He fought numerous wars of expansion.

The Pharisees, who developed as a distinct group early on during the Maccabean revolt, opposed these actions. When the later Hasmonean kings sided with the rival Sadducean faction against the Pharisees, a civil war erupted.

Because of this, Pharisees looked negatively on the Hasmonean dynasty of Maccabean kings. While Hanukkah was still celebrated by the first century – the time of Jesus – the Pharisees understandably avoided praising the Hasmoneans.

When the Hebrew Bible was finalized – whether at the supposed Council of Javneh or in a more decentralized fashion – one wonders whether the Pharisaic influences saw to it that the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees were omitted from the Hebrew Bible canon.

It wasn’t until some 600 years after the events of Hanukkah did the Pharisaic writings of the Talmud record the legend of the miraculous oil during Hanukkah. And even then, the focus is not on the Maccabees or their Hasmonean descendants, but on the miracle of the oil.

And even to this day, the liturgy of Hanukkah speaks little of the Maccabees, mentioning them only in passing:

In the days of Matthityahu ben Yohanan, high priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the evil Greek kingdom stood up against Your people Israel, to cause them to forget Your Torah and abandon the ways You desire, You, in Your great mercy, stood up for them in their time of trouble; You fought their fight, You judged their judgment, You took their revenge; You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the evil into the hands of the righteous, the sinners into the hands of those who engaged in Your Torah; You made yourself a great and holy name in Your world, and for Your people Israel You made great redemption and salvation as this very day. And then Your sons came to the inner chamber of Your house, and cleared Your Temple, and purified Your sanctuary, and lit candles in Your holy courtyards, and established eight days of Hanukkah for thanksgiving and praise to Your holy name.

Indeed, the 700 year old hymn of Hanukkah, Maoz Tzur, mentions only the “the days of the Hasmoneans” in passing. (The more modern English rendition omits them entirely.)

Hanukkah remained a minor festival until the 20th century, when, after the devastation of the Holocaust sparked fires of Zionism and Jewish nationalism, Jews began to identify in a powerful way with Hanukkah’s themes of independence, fight for survival, a reclaiming of Israel and Jerusalem.

9. The Maccabees put their central hope in the resurrection…and believed hell awaited their tormentors

The Maccabees went up against extreme odds: a small band of mostly-commoners going up against a massive, world-class, highly-trained military with disciplined cavalry, war elephants, heavily armored infantry, and siege engines; a massive force that greatly outnumbered the Maccabees by a few orders of magnitude.

But they had what their Seleucid invaders didn’t have: hope in the resurrection power of God.

Consider the Maccabean warrior who gave his life in battle, in 1 Maccabees 6:43-44:

Now Eleazar, called Avaran, saw that one of the war elephants was equipped with royal armor. It was taller than all the others, and he supposed that the king was on it. So he gave his life to save his people and to win for himself an everlasting name.

An everlasting name – the resurrection. 2 Maccabees 7 is more explicit, showing the Maccabean martyr’s hope was in the resurrection:

After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair, and asked him, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” He replied in the language of his ancestors and said to them, “No.” Therefore he in turn underwent tortures as the first brother had done. And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.”

The third brother said the same:

After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, and said nobly, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.” As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing.

The only way this brother receives back his severed tongue, hands, and feet are through the resurrection.

The fourth brother too:

After he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. When he was near death, he said, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!”

The fifth brother endures torture in full expectation of a bodily resurrection. Additionally, he expects his tormentors, including the wicked King, will be punished in the afterlife:

Next they brought forward the fifth and maltreated him. But he looked at the king, and said, “Because you have authority among mortals, though you also are mortal, you do what you please. But do not think that God has forsaken our people. Keep on, and see how his mighty power will torture you and your descendants!”

Might he be referring to hell? This certainly flies in the face of some modern universalist theology, both in the Jewish and Christian world: a faithful Jew, tortured to death, telling his tormentors that God will torment them and their descendants. Phew! This warrants a post of its own.

The sixth brother also tells his tormentors that God will punish the wicked:

After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened. But do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!”

Before they murdered the seventh brother, his mother encouraged him in the hope of the resurrection:

I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.”

When the 7th brother finally speaks, he tells of the coming judgment for the wicked and resurrection life for the righteous:

“What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our ancestors through Moses. But you, who have contrived all sorts of evil against the Jews, will certainly not escape the hands of God. For we are suffering because of our own sins. And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all mortals, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty, all-seeing God. For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of ever-flowing life, under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God,

10. The miracle of oil doesn’t appear in earliest sources

Perhaps the most famous story about Hanukkah is the miraculous menorah oil. After the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and dedicated the Temple, the legend goes that as the Maccabees cleansed the Temple, the found only a single bottle of oil sealed with by the priests, enough to light the menorah for a single day. However, God performed a miracle and the oil lasted for all 8 days of the festival.

The primary source we have for information about the Maccabees, the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, doesn’t mention the legend about menorah oil.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false. McKee writes,

One of the problems that some skeptics have about Chanukah pertains to the miracle of the oil remaining lit for eight days. It is true that it is not mentioned in the historical accounts of 1-4 Maccabees, and instead appears in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b). Does this mean that it was a totally fabricated legend and that most Jews and Messianic Jews, and people such as myself, are promoting mythology? One of the advantages of reading the Scirptures in their ancienht context is that you actually get to compare the Bible against religious stories of others. You get to see what real mythology is. […] A candelabra of olive oil remaining lit for eight days i not an impossible miracle in which to believe–even if it is mentioned in the Talmud! […] Why would we deny God the possibility of leaving the Temple menorah lit for eight days while new oil was being consecrated? […] Whatever happened to the Jewish people having the oracles of God (Romans 3:2)?

I agree with McKee that it is possible God worked a miracle here. Consider that the Maccabees – a small band of largely untrained fighters – defeated a trained, world-class military many times their size. That the Jewish people are alive today requires many miracles, and the Maccabee victory was one miracle in a line of many that God used to preserve Israel through the ages.

That said, we should be cognizant that the miracle of the Hanukkah oil wasn’t written down until 600 some years after the events of Hanukkah transpired. Contrast with, say, the Gospels, which were written within a few decades of the events they record. At very least, some rational skepticism may be in order, recognizing it is a beautiful Jewish tradition that may or may not be true.

11. The New Testament praises the Maccabean martyrs

The book of Hebrews, likely written to Jewish followers of Jesus in the diaspora, contains a famous passage Christians refer to as “Heroes of the Faith”. In Hebrew 11, the author writes,

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Specifically, verse 35-36:

Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.

Who are these heroes of the faith who were tortured and refused to accept release in order to obtain a better resurrection?

The refers to the Maccabees who were martyred.

2 Maccabees 7, one of the most horrific passages in Maccabees, recounts a faithful family who endured torture while looking forward to the resurrection:

It also happened that seven brothers were arrested together with their mother. The king tortured them with whips and scourges in an attempt to force them to eat pork, in violation of the law of God. One of the brothers, acting as a spokesman for the others, said, “What do you expect to achieve by questioning us? We are prepared to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.

The king became enraged and issued orders to have pans and caldrons heated. After this was done without delay, he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that he be scalped and his hands and feet cut off while the rest of his brothers and his mother looked on.
When the first brother had died in this manner, they brought forward the second to be subjected to their cruel sport. After the skin and hair of his head had been stripped off, they asked him: “Will you eat some pork rather than have your body tortured limb by limb?” Replying in the language of his ancestors, he said to them, “Never!” Therefore, he in turn underwent the same torture that the first had endured. With his final breath, he said: “You accursed fiend, you may send us forth from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to life eternal, since it is because of our obedience to his laws that we are dying.”

[…] After he had died they maltreated and tortured the fourth brother in the same way. When he was at the point of death, he cried out: “It is far better to choose to die at the hands of men and rely on the promise of God of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life.”

These brothers endured torture knowing they will be raised to life in the resurrection.

Messianic apologist J.K. McKee notes that Christian scholars have rightly identified Hebrew 11’s “tortured, but refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection” as the Maccabean martyrs:

David A. deSilva concurs in his commentary on Hebrews,
“‘Those who were tortured’” but who maintained their loyalty to God and trust in his reward of the faithful are frequently and rightly identified as the martyrs who suffered under Antiochus IV, whose story is vividly preserved in 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42 and 4 Maccabees 5-18…That the author of Hebrews should include among his examples of faith this group of martyrs is not at all surprising…”

12. Yeshua (Jesus) celebrated Hanukkah

This is perhaps more well-known among Messianic believers, but many Christians don’t know it: Jesus celebrated Hanukkah. It’s right there in the Gospels, John chapter 10:

Then came Hanukkah; it was winter in Jerusalem. Yeshua was walking in the Temple around Solomon’s Colonnade. Then the Jewish leaders asked him,

“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly!”

(Some translations will render Hanukkah as “Feast of Dedication” – this is the same thing. The Hebrew word Hanukkah חנוכה means dedication, as in the dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees.)

But wait, does Yeshua being present at the Temple during Hanukkah imply he celebrated it? Maybe he was standing off in Solomon’s Collonade because he disapproved of Hanukkah.

Not so.

Christian scholar F.F. Bruce notes,

Jesus evidently had spent the two months since Tabernacles [Sukkot] in or near Jerusalem…The note that ‘it was winter’ may be intended to explain why he was in a covered part of the Temple precincts. Solomon’s colonnade was the name given to the portico which ran along the east side of the outer court of Herod’s Temple.

That Yeshua was present at the Temple with all of Israel during the Feast of Dedication is no mere coincidence. The Temple would have been the center of the celebration, and Yeshua join in celebrating Hanukkah.

And of course he would. God indeed worked miracles through the Maccabees to preserve Israel, the Torah, the Temple, and faith. The authentic Jewish Messiah have joined Israel in celebrating that in the place it mattered most: the Temple in Jerusalem.