Celebrate Messiah Newsletter
Shalom in the name of our glorious Messiah!
On behalf of the Chosen People Ministries global family, which includes Celebrate Messiah, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!
For many of my fellow Jewish people, the very idea of linking these two holidays together is awkward. It still feels a little strange to me, even after being a Jesus follower for the past fifty years. Yet, I realise that having one without the other is impossible.
Let me explain. The story of Hanukkah describes the ways God protected and preserved His chosen people.
If Antiochus Epiphanes destroyed the Jewish people, then how would Mary have given birth to the Jewish Messiah, Jesus? In other words, without Hanukkah there would be no Christmas!
I continue to reflect upon the similarities and differences between Christmas and Hanukkah. The similarities include the theme of lights, giving gifts, families gathering, and viewing the God of Israel as the deliverer of His people. Yet, the differences between the holidays loom large because there is no other time of year when Christians think more about the incarnation – God becoming human – than on Christmas.
He is the reason for the season!
It is still astounding to me, and largely unknown by my Jewish people, how the only mention of Hanukkah in the Bible is found in the Gospel of John chapter 10. But, of course, if you have read our newsletter for a while or spent time on our website, you know Jewish people do not accept the New Testament as God’s Word. I do, as does all our staff, but again, this is not a typical Jewish view.
The traditional Jewish view of the New Testament is one of the most difficult challenges we face in bringing the gospel to the Jewish people.
I still remember the day I realised Jesus was the Messiah. It happened after I read the New Testament and understood Jesus was Jewish and celebrated the Jewish holidays, including Hanukkah! Then, as I continued reading, I realised the New Testament, especially the Gospels, seemed like part two of the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the Old Testament, we read about the promises of God to the Jewish people and the nations of the world. In the New Testament, we see how those promises are fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah. The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, tells one magnificent and seamless story of God’s plan for redemption.
God in the Flesh
This incredible story, told through both testaments, made perfect sense to me. Even more importantly, I fell in love with the Messiah Jesus and believed He was indeed God wrapped in human flesh!
Yet, accepting His deity is difficult for most Jewish people, as we are raised to believe God has no physical form. Jewish people expect the Messiah to be a religious, political, and military leader, not God in the flesh.
Modern Judaism considers the first two commandments – to have no other gods before us nor to create graven images of God – the reason why the very idea of an incarnation is unacceptable.
The Christmas/Hanukkah season intensifies these differences as it is increasingly difficult for Jewish people to avoid the issue of Jesus’ deity! Every nativity scene reminds us of the New Testament teaching about how God became a man. As believers, we know the Messiah’s deity is true, and fulfills God’s promises to the Jewish people found in Isaiah 7:14 and again in chapter 9, verses 6 and 7.
In Micah 5:2, we learn this leader in Israel, the Messiah, was to be born in Bethlehem, whose “goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”
The Hebrew Scriptures present unshakable evidence for the deity of the Messiah throughout its pages, yet most Jewish people do not recognise or accept it. This conflict over the deity of Jesus is at the heart and core of Christmas and Hanukkah.
It was during the celebration of Hanukkah when Jesus made one of the clearest statements about His deity. We also see how the Jewish people of His day took exception to His declaration of divinity:
“I and the Father are one.” The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” Jesus answered them, “. . . If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.” Therefore they were seeking again to seize Him, and He eluded their grasp. (John 10:30–39, emphasis added)
Have you ever wondered why the Jewish leaders had such a strong reaction to Jesus’ pronouncement? It seems to stretch far beyond theological disagreement as, after all, they wanted to stone Him! It is impossible to understand the reaction of the Jewish leaders without knowing the background of Hanukkah.
The Hanukkah Story
So, I hope you do not mind me telling you the Hanukkah story. It is always a blessing for me.
You will not find the story of Hanukkah in the Bible. Instead, it appears in the books of the Maccabees, which are part of the Apocrypha, writings outside the canon of Scripture. Jewish people view these books as historical documents but not divinely inspired Scripture.
Again, please allow me to summarise the story of Hanukkah in my own words.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a Seleucid king who reigned from 175–164 bce over part of the Greek Empire, which Alexander the Great’s four generals divided among themselves upon his death. Antiochus bore the title Epiphanes (God manifest), implying his “incarnation” of the Greek god Zeus. Jewish people called Antiochus the madman (Epimanes) because of his cruel and erratic behavior.
This polytheistic madman wanted the Jewish people to follow Hellenistic ways and periodically outlawed Jewish worship and practices. Finally, he sent his emissaries throughout Israel along with a portable statue of himself and demanded the Jewish people bow down and worship him as a Greek god incarnate. But those faithful among the Jewish community could not stomach idolatry and would not bow to the statue of Antiochus Epiphanes!
The Jewish people who lived in a small town called Modi’in led a grassroots rebellion against the Syrian Greeks from 167–160 bce under the leadership of Mattathias, a Levitical priest, along with his son Judah.
The Maccabees fought hard for seven years and in 160 bce defeated the Syrian Greeks, retaking Jerusalem and the Temple. But their joy turned quickly to horror when they discovered that Antiochus sacrificed a pig on the Temple altar.
The Maccabees dismantled the holy altar and removed the stones, which they believed to be beyond cleansing. Jewish tradition tells us they heaped the stones into a pile in the Temple area where they would await the coming of a great prophet to cleanse them. Then, they built a new altar.
Jewish Loyalty to the One True God
Hanukkah celebrates the victory of faithfulness over idolatry: more specifically, worshiping the image of a man who believed he was the incarnation of a false god. In this instance, it was Antiochus. Jewish spiritual loyalty resisted idolatry and refused to worship the image of a man claiming to be God.
May I speculate? I believe this spiritual loyalty and resistance to the idea of an incarnation was a strategy the devil used to repel the Jewish people from the actual incarnation of God as predicted by the prophets of Israel. Who can blame the Jewish leaders for resisting what, in their understanding, was an idolatrous statement by Jesus in declaring His oneness with the Father (John 10)? The religious loyalty of the Jewish leaders blinded them. They did not recognise God was fulfilling the promises of Scripture through taking on flesh and dying for the sins of the Jewish people and the world (Isaiah 9:6–7, 53:1–12; Micah 5:2, etc.)!
I cannot blame my people for resisting idolatry. However, the leaders already observed a Messiah who healed, performed miracles, and claimed to fulfill the prophecy of the One who was indeed God in the flesh. He opened the eyes of the blind, fed multitudes miraculously, cast out demons, and fulfilled the messianic qualifications peppered throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
My prayer is for both Jews and Gentiles who have not yet concluded that Jesus is God in the flesh. Understanding this and coming to know the One who is the reason for the season, the son of David, and the Savior of the world is life changing! I pray the Lord will lead each of us to make the truth of His deity known among both Jews and Gentiles in the days ahead.
Thank you so much for your prayers and sacrificial support of Your Mission to the Jewish People. We have some incredible outreach projects on the horizon, which I will tell you about in the future. I plan to come to Australia in March around the time of Purim, and will be preaching at Beit HaMashiach in Melbourne as well as presenting a Shabbat Day Conference. More details will be coming later on this. Meanwhile, I pray your love for the Messiah will grow more profound as you reflect upon the miracle of the incarnation!
I hope you enjoy the rest of the articles in our holiday newsletter.
President Chosen People Ministries
Besides the story of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, Hanukkah is mostly known for its traditions of candle-lighting, spinning dreidels, chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, yummy jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot in Israel, potato latkes, and gift-giving. But did you know many of these fun traditions stem from only one stream of Jewish culture from the diaspora?
That’s right! The European Ashkenazi Jewish tradition largely popularised the celebrations of Hanukkah as observed in the United States, Australia and even in Israel today. Have you ever wondered how Jewish cultures from other parts of the world celebrate(d) this holiday – or didn’t celebrate it? Here are a few fascinating different traditions (and delicious must-try recipes) for celebrating Hanukkah according to very diverse Jewish communities around the globe!
Yemenite and North African Jews
Chag HaBanot (Hebrew for Festival of the Daughters) is a celebration of women that was observed in Yemenite and North African Jewish communities on the seventh night of Hanukkah. Although Chag HaBanot or Eid Al Banat in Judeo-Arabic has largely ceased to be an active holiday, it is best kept and still preserved by the Tunisian Jewish communities today, while others are reviving these customs.1 This night is filled with singing, dancing, and lighting of the hanukkiah (special menorah for Hanukkah) in commemoration of Jewish heroines like Hannah and Judith, whose fights against assimilation appear in the books of Maccabees. In countries like Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco, many Jewish communities held a dairy feast in honor of Judith. According to the story, Judith offered the Syrian Greek general, Holofernes, cheese and wine, leading him to believe that she would help him and his army take the city of Bethulia. Once Holofernes became drunk, Judith beheaded him, causing the rest of his soldiers to flee in terror, which then revived the morale of the Maccabean fighters. During this feast, women would go to synagogue to touch the Torah and pray for their daughters’ health (and all women in their families); young and old women would dance with each other, and reconciliation between women would take place.
Considered one of the world’s oldest diaspora groups, the Bukharan Jews are said to have first arrived in the modern-day countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan during the Babylonian exile in 586 bce.2 The Bukharan Jewish community celebrates Hanukkah with a flat menorah requiring oil and cotton wicks instead of candles. The musical tunes for prayers also greatly differ from other Jewish communities. Called shashmaqam, or “six notes,” they shared their music not only with the many Jewish communities in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan but also with Muslims. Bukharan Jewish people honor the Hanukkah tradition of eating fried foods (to commemorate the miracle of the oil, which lasted eight days in the Temple) by enjoying fried “twig” cookies, called hushquiliq, whose key ingredients are oil and vodka!3
Even though the events of Hanukkah predate Jesus’ birth by more than 150 years, it is considered a “modern” Jewish holiday in the mind of Ethiopian Jewry because they only recently learned the story of Hanukkah.4 Beta Israel existed for fifteen centuries in Ethiopia.5 For more than 2,000 years, these Torah-observant Jewish people lived isolated and disconnected from other Jewish communities. Most of the world was not aware of the Jewish people who existed in Ethiopia for all those centuries.6 When the Ethiopian Jewish community reunited with the greater Jewish population, they adopted similar Hanukkah traditions. A traditional Ethiopian spicy chicken dish called doro wat also became a popular Hanukkah dish served with a holiday bread called dabo.7
In Columbia, one Jewish community popularised a new Hanukkah tradition. Chavurah Shirat Hayyam, a group in Santa Marta, substitutes Hanukkah’s traditional potato latkes with fried plantains, called patacones.8
Similar to the traditional sufganiyot (doughnuts) served on Hanukkah, Italian Jews have a special Hanukkah dessert called precipizi, which are fried honey balls made with flour, eggs, and rum. The dough is lightly sweetened, infused with olive oil, fried, and dipped in honey.
Besides the Hanukkah celebrations that take place in Israel, the US and Australia, Budapest is perhaps next in line to offer massive celebrations for the Festival of Lights. Every year, the city hosts the “Quarter 6 Quarter 7 Festival,” named after Budapest’s historic Jewish district in District VI and VII. For eight whole days, people celebrate with flash mobs, concerts, theatrical performances, and, as always, oil-saturated Hanukkah delights at local restaurants.9
Perhaps this year you can add some new traditions and flavors to your Hanukkah celebrations. Happy Hanukkah!
1 Tabby Refael, “Beyond Gelt: How Mizrahi Jews Celebrate Hanukkah,” Jewish Journal, December 16, 2020, https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/columnist/326126/beyond-gelt-how-mizrahi-jews-celebrate-hanukkah/; and Rabbi Jill Hammer, “Chag HaBanot: The Festival of the Daughters,” Ritualwell, accessed October 10, 2022, https://ritualwell.org/ritual/chag-habanot-festival-daughters/.
2 Alanna Cooper, “Who Are the Bukharan Jews?” My Jewish Learning, accessed October 10, 2022, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/who-are-the-bukharan-jews/.
3 Manashe Khaimov, “How My Bukharian Jewish Community Celebrates Hanukkah,” My Jewish Learning, December 9, 2019, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/2019/12/09/how-my-bukharian-jewish-community-celebrates-hanukkah/.
4 Joan Nathan, “A New African Tradition for Hanukkah,” New York Times, December 4, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/04/dining/doro-wat-hanukkah-ethiopia.html.
5 Atira Winchester, “The History of Ethiopian Jewry,” My Jewish Learning, accessed October 10, 2022, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-history-of-ethiopian-jewry/.
6 Mitchell Bard, “Who Are the Ethiopian Jews?” Jewish Virtual Library, accessed October 10, 2022, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/who-are-the-ethiopian-jews.
7 Nathan, “A New African Tradition for Hanukkah.”
8 “How 21 Countries around the World Celebrate Hanukkah Slideshow,” Daily Meal, December 8, 2017, https://www.thedailymeal.com/holidays/countries-around-world-celebrate-hanukkah-slideshow/slide-1.
One of the most familiar images of Hanukkah is a nine-branched menorah. One candle called the “servant,” shamash in Hebrew, is usually placed in the center of the menorah. It is used to light each candle representing each of the eight nights of the holiday. This style of menorah is the one you will see this time of year1 in homes, shops, and public displays.
But it is not the only kind of menorah and should be distinguished from the seven-branched menorah, which stood in the Tabernacle. This biblical lampstand had seven cups for the priests to fill with oil and light (Exodus 25:31–40). When the menorah appears as a symbol, like the Chosen People Ministries logo, it usually contains only seven lights.
The Jewish community sometimes refers to the nine-candle menorah as a hanukkiah to distinguish it from the seven-light variety. Still, it is fair and accurate to call a hanukkiah a menorah. After all, menorah is simply the Hebrew word for “lampstand.”2 So, all hanukkiahs are menorahs, but not all menorahs are hanukkiahs!
Why Eight Days?
The origin of the hanukkiah and the practice of lighting it for eight days during Hanukkah is unclear. As a holiday, Hanukkah dates to the second century bce, when the Seleucid ruler over Israel began to persecute the Jewish people. The Maccabees led a successful rebellion against this tyrant. In the process, the Seleucid army defiled the Temple, so the priests needed to rededicate it upon their return. Josephus, a Jewish historian and former Jewish general who lived during the first century, was the first to connect Hanukkah with light. He noted the holiday was called “Lights” but did not explain why.3 A “Hanukkah lamp” is mentioned in the Mishnah, an authoritative Jewish commentary on the five books of Moses compiled in the third century,4 but not until the sixth century did Jewish sources discuss the practice of lighting flames on Hanukkah in detail.
To explain the origin of this tradition, the Sages said one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple and relit the menorah. Jewish lore offers other explanations for the eight-day celebration. First, Jewish people could not observe the biblical fall festivals during the Maccabean Revolt. Partly to make up for this loss, the people celebrated the last of these holidays, the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), which lasted eight days.5 Less common – but equally fascinating – is a ninth-century legend that depicts the Maccabees discovering eight spears in the Temple. According to the story, they stuck these spears in the ground and lit them.6
Development of the Hanukkiah
Archaeologists have discovered lampstands with eight spouts from the sixth century. The earliest Hanukkah lights were clay or stone lamps with small cups for oil and wicks. During each day of the festival, a celebrant would add a lamp to the display.
The fuel used to light the lamps was olive oil, just as the priests used oil in the menorah in the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple. Olive oil was a valuable commodity in the ancient Mediterranean world and figured prominently in many practices recorded in the Bible. For example, oil was part of the grain offerings (Leviticus 9:4). Additionally, priests and other leaders, such as kings, were anointed with oil (Exodus 29:21). As a food product, oil symbolised prosperity, much like wine (Deuteronomy 8:8). Oil could soothe wounds (Isaiah 1:6) and serve as a cosmetic (Esther 2:12). The priests also needed a constant supply of oil to fuel the menorah in the Temple (Leviticus 24:2).
The medieval European Jewish community began using candles for Hanukkah lights because wax was less expensive and easier to obtain than oil. Before electricity, lighting was a significant expense for most societies. Oil was quite expensive, making lighting a lamp for religious purposes sacrificial.7
Though we use candles in most hanukkiahs today, oil’s connection with Hanukkah remains. Traditional Hanukkah foods like potato pancakes, called latkes, and jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyot are cooked in oil. The standard hanukkiah today comes in an endless array of creative designs. Many have a star of David; some are colorful or have flowers. Especially imaginative Hanukkah menorahs are also available; even an octopus-shaped hanukkiah where the cephalopod’s body serves as the base, and each tentacle can hold a candle! Small disposable hanukkiahs are used by many who choose a less elaborate way to celebrate the holidays, and electric Hanukkah menorahs are growing more and more popular. Along with the potato pancakes, beautiful prayers announcing this season of God’s victory on behalf of His chosen people are recited, and moving songs are sung along with presents given on each of the eight nights. The great theme of the holiday focuses on joy, light, deliverance, and the warmth of family gathered in observance of the holiday.
1 Hanukkah falls on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which is in November or December. This year the first candle is lit on the evening of Sunday 18 December and the final eighth candle on the evening of Christmas Day, 25 December.
2 William Lee Holladay and Ludwig Köhler, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament: Based upon the Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 202.
3 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 12.325.
4 M. Bava Kamma 6:6.
5 2 Maccabees 10:9.
6 Peskita Rabati 2:1.
7 David Zvi Kalman, “The Insanely Fascinating History of Hanukkah Light,” Forward, December 5, 2017, https://forward.com/culture/388936/the-insanely-fascinating-history-of-hanukkah-light/.
Sign up for Celebrate Messiah email newsletters to receive more information on our ministries, events, and outreach to the Jewish people around the world: