Celebrating HANUKKAH – a brief history

American Minute with Bill Federer

The origin of lights at this time of year has an important meaning for today.

King Cyrus of Persia let the Jews return to Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity and they rebuilt the Temple around 516 BC.

Around 334 BC, Alexander the Great invaded from the west and speedily conquered the Medo-Persian Empire.

The prophet Daniel foretold in chapter 8:

“The male goat was coming from the west over the surface of the whole earth without touching the ground; and the goat had a conspicuous horn between his eyes. He came up to the ram that had the two horns, which I had seen standing in front of the canal, and rushed at him in his mighty wrath … and he struck the ram and shattered his two horns …”

At the height of his power, Alexander the Great suddenly died and his generals divided up his empire.

Daniel had written:

“The male goat magnified himself exceedingly. But as soon as he was mighty, the large horn was broken; and in its place there came up four conspicuous horns toward the four winds of heaven.”

The common understanding is that Alexander’s Empire, after numerous battles, was divided up thus:

-Lysimachus ruled Thrace and much of Asia Minor;
-Cassander ruled Macedonia and Greece;
-Ptolemy ruled Egypt;
-Seleucus ruled the Middle East, Syria, Babylon, Persia, and parts of India, collectively known as the “Seleucid Empire.”

Around 167 BC, out of the Seleucid Empire, there arose an aggressive king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Daniel wrote further:

“Out of one of them came forth a rather small horn which grew exceedingly great toward the south, toward the east, and toward the Beautiful Land.”

Author Joel Richardson presents the thought, that with modern-day Iran threatening Israel, there may yet be a future element to Daniel’s prophecy: “Son of man, understand that the vision pertains to the time of the end.”

Antiochus IV Epiphanes attacked Jerusalem, as reported in 2 Maccabees 5:11-14:

“The king … thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm.

He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses.

There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants …

In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.”

Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to force the Jews to abandon their beliefs and adopt the Greek culture, as recorded in 2 Maccabees 5:11-14:

“Not long after this the king sent an Athenian senator to force the Jews to abandon the customs of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of God;

also to profane the temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus …

They also brought into the temple things that were forbidden, so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the laws …

A man could not keep the sabbath or celebrate the traditional feasts, nor even admit that he was a Jew …

Women … arrested for having circumcised their children were publicly paraded about the city with their babies hanging at their breasts and then thrown down from the top of the city wall …

Others, who had assembled in nearby caves to observe the sabbath in secret, were betrayed … and all burned to death.”

In 165 BC, Judas Maccabaeus led a courageous revolt which finally drove the enemy out.

After cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem of pagan defilement, they went to rededicate it by lighting the menorah lampstand, but there was only enough holy olive oil to keep it burning for a day.

Miraculously, the light burned for eight days.

This followed the example of Solomon, as recorded in I Kings 8 and II Chronicles 7, who dedicated the first Temple in the 10th century BC with a 7 day festival ending on the 8th day.

Also, when Cyrus let the Jews return from the Babylonian captivity, as recorded in Ezra 6:16-17, they celebrated the dedication of the second Temple around 516 BC.

The re-dedication of the second Temple in 164 BC became called the Jewish Festival of Lights, or HANUKKAH, which is the Hebrew word for”Dedication.”

Flavius Josephus wrote in the Jewish Antiquities (12.7.6-7 316-325) that in 164 BC:

“The generals of Antiochus’s armies having been defeated …

Judah Maccabee assembled the people and told them that after the many victories which God had given them they ought to go up to Jerusalem and purify the Temple …

But when he with the whole multitude came to Jerusalem and found he Temple deserted, its gates burned down, and plants growing in the Temple of their own accord because of the desolation, he and those with him began to lament …”

Josephus continued:

“He had carefully purged it he brought in new vessels–the menorah, the table and the incense altar, which were made of gold …

And on the 25th day of the month Kislev, which the Macedonians call Apellaios, they lighted the lights that were on the menorah, and offered incense upon the altar, and laid the loaves upon the table, and offered whole burnt offerings upon the new altar.

As it happened, these things took place on the very same day on which, three years before, the divine worship had been reduced to an impure and profane form of worship; for the Temple had remained desolate for three years after being made so by Antiochus …”

Josephus concluded:

“And so Judah and his fellow citizens celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days …

They honored God, and delighted themselves with psalms of praise and the playing of harps.

Indeed, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs and, after so long a time, having unexpectedly regained their right to worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival celebrating the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days.”

The New Testament Book of John, chapter 10:22-23, recorded that even Jesus observed the Feast of Dedication:

“At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.'”

The many centuries of the HANUKKAH lighting of candles in the winter might have been a latent inspiration for the Christian tradition of putting lights in tree branches to depict the sky above Bethlehem.

Various U.S. Presidents acknowledged HANUKKAH.

Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Samuel I. Rosenman, President of the Jewish Education Committee in New York, December 16, 1940:

“Dear Sam, Please convey my best wishes to your co-workers in the Jewish Education Committee of New York, at the annual HANUKKAH Dinner …

Our modern democratic way of life has its deepest roots in our great common religious tradition, which for ages past has taught to civilized mankind the dignity of the human being, his equality before God, and his responsibility in the making of a better and fairer world …

The world (is) … engaged in a great spiritual struggle to test whether that ancient wisdom is to endure, or whether … some few men shall dominate multitudes of others and dictate to them their thinking, their religion, their living …

We need the sustaining, buttressing aid of those great ethical religious teachings which are the heritage of our modern civilization.

For ‘not upon strength nor upon power, but upon the spirit of God’ shall our democracy be founded.”

In 1951, President Harry S Truman received a presentation of a HANUKKAH menorah from Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.

Truman stated May 26, 1952:

“I had faith in Israel before it was established, I have faith in it now.

I believe it has a glorious future before it–not just another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.”

President Harry S Truman answered questions at a News Conference of August 16, 1945:

“Q. What was the American view on Palestine?

PRESIDENT. The American view … is, we want to let as many of the Jews into Palestine as it is possible.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower stated:

“Our forces saved the remnants of the Jewish people of Europe for a new life and a new hope in the reborn land of Israel. Along with all men of good will, I salute the young state and wish it well.”

President Dwight Eisenhower stated February 20, 1957:

“There can, of course, be no equating of a nation like Israel with that of the Soviet Union.

The people of Israel, like those of the United States, are imbued with a religious faith and a sense of moral values … which unhappily we cannot expect from a nation controlled by atheistic despots.”

Eisenhower remarked on the Jewish High Holy Days, September 14, 1958:

“The teaching of their ancient belief is filled with truth for the present day …

The health of our society depends upon a deep and abiding respect for the basic commandments of the God of Israel.”

President John F. Kennedy met with Israel’s Foreign Minister Golda Meir.

Kennedy addressed the Zionists of America Convention, August 26, 1960:

“Israel was not created in order to disappear–Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and home of the brave.

It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.”

Kennedy stated May 8, 1963:

“This nation from the time of President Woodrow Wilson, has established and continued a tradition of friendship with Israel because we are committed to all free societies that seek a path to peace and honor individual rights”

President Lyndon Johnson remarked at the 125th Anniversary Meeting of B’nai B’rith (Children of the Covenant), September 10, 1968:

“The United States and Israel share many common objectives … chief of which is the building of a better world in which every nation can develop its resources and develop them in freedom and peace.

Our society is illuminated by the spiritual insights of the Hebrew prophets. America and Israel have a common love of human freedom and they have a common faith in a democratic way of life …

Most if not all of you have very deep ties with the land and with the people of Israel, as I do, for my Christian faith sprang from yours …

The Bible stories are woven into my childhood memories as the gallant struggle of modern Jews to be free of persecution is also woven into our souls.”

President Richard Nixon stated:

“The United States stands by its friends. Israel is one of its friends.”

Nixon remarked on Presidential Trip to Israel, June 16, 1974:

“Their courage, their tenacity, their firmness in the face of very great odds, is one that makes us proud to stand with Israel, as we have in the past in times of trouble, and now to work with Israel in a better time, a time that we trust will be a time of peace.”

President Nixon honored the President and Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel, September 25, 1969:

“Madam Prime Minister and our very distinguished guests this evening … This is the first time that in this administration we have had the honor to receive the head of government of another state who also is a woman …

We know that very capable women and strong women have played a remarkable and important part in that history.

In Biblical terms, we remember Deborah, 3,000 years ago. The Bible tells us very little about Deborah, except that she loved her people and served them well…that there was peace in the land for 40 years …

When we think back on your people, a war every 10 years; when we think back on your people going back through the century, how they have suffered, we know how much the word ‘peace’ means …

We feel it because the people of Israel deserve peace. They have earned peace …

We simply want to say that we are very honored to have the Prime Minister … here in this room tonight. We are honored to pay tribute to a very brave and courageous people … I would like to ask you, in affirming that sentiment, to rise and raise your glasses with me to the Prime Minister.”

President Gerald Ford welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, September 10, 1974):

“The United States … has been proud of its association with the State of Israel.

We shall continue to stand with Israel. We are committed to Israel’s survival and security. The United States for a quarter of a century has had an excellent relationship with the State of Israel.”

On December 17, 1979, Jimmy Carter was the first President to participate in HANUKKAH.

He walked from the White House to Lafayette Park to light the National Menorah erected by the American Friends of Lubavitch and commented:

“It’s a real honor for me to come from the White House here to this ceremony celebrating the commencement of CHANUKAH, last night, the Feast of Lights.

As many of you know, the season of CHANUKAH commemorates the victory of religious freedom …

At the commencement of the celebration of this annual event, this season of thanksgiving and closeness to God, there was a miracle within which the candle which was supposed to only burn a short time burned for 8 days and nights …

This miracle showed that God meets our needs. If we depend on Him, He will meet our needs. This also shows that there is a need to celebrate courage and to remember that hope in one’s breast need never die …

The first candle that I lit, the shammes candle, has given its light now in this glass cage to five other candles.

It has not itself been diminished. It shows that when we give life and love to others, the life and love in our own hearts is not diminished … It grows the more we share it.

So, tonight we pray that our closeness to God, our memory of these fine commitments of human beings down through the ages will strengthen our desires to share our life and our love …

I’m very grateful that this beautiful menorah has been dedicated for the commemoration of the season of CHANUKAH,

and I’m very grateful as President to be partaking in this commemoration of a season when human beings are drawn closer to God and, in that spirit, have confidence that the future will bring us a better life with God and with one another.”

President Ronald Reagan stated in his HANUKKAH Message, 1983:

“Whether we be Americans or Israelis, we are all children of Abraham, children of the same God. The bonds between our two peoples are growing stronger, and they must not and will never be broken.”

In his autobiography, An American Life (Simon & Schuster, 1990, p. 410), Ronald Reagan wrote:

“I’ve believed many things in my life, but no conviction I’ve ever held has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.

The Holocaust, I believe, left America with a moral responsibility to ensure that what happened to the Jews under Hitler never happens again. We must not let if happen again. The civilized world owes a debt to the people who were the greatest victims of Hiter’s madness.”

President George H.W. Bush stated in his HANUKKAH Message, 1991:

“When Judah Maccabee and his followers prepared to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem, they found … only enough oil to light the menorah for one night. Miraculously, it lasted eight.”

In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled the first stamp commemorating HANUKKAH.

President Bill Clinton stated in his HANUKKAH Message, 1997:

“From the days of the ancient Maccabees down to our present time, tyrants have sought to deny people the free expression of their faith and the right to live according to their own conscience and convictions …

HANUKKAH symbolizes the heroic struggle of all who seek to defeat such oppression and the miracles that come to those full of faith and courage.

This holiday holds special meaning for us in America, where freedom of religion is one of the cornerstones of our democracy.

The coming year will mark the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel, where the story of the first HANUKKAH took place so many centuries ago …

May the candles of the menorah light our way to a true and lasting peace for the people of the Middle East.”

President George Bush remarked lighting the HANUKKAH Menorah in the White House, December 10, 2001:

“Tonight, for the first time in American history, the HANUKKAH menorah will be lit at the White House residence … The magnificent menorah before us was crafted over a century ago in the city of Lvov …

The Jews of Lvov fell victim to the horror of the Nazi Holocaust, but their great menorah survived. And as God promised Abraham, the people of Israel still live …

We’re reminded of the ancient story of Israel’s courage and of the power of faith to make the darkness bright.

We can see the heroic spirit of the Maccabees lives on in Israel today, and we trust that a better day is coming, when this Festival of Freedom will be celebrated in a world free from terror.”


bill-federer-2Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.