Why Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights

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Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights. It is celebrated by the kindling of lights over the festival’s eight days. These lights should be placed in a doorway or window to publicize the festival and the miracle of the oil. The main miracle that is celebrated throughout the eight days of the festival was the miracle of the oil for the Temple Menorah. Only enough oil for one day was found to light the eternal flame, but the oil burned for eight days.

Hanukkah can also be seen as a celebration of the victory of the forces of light over the forces of darkness. The Temple
was rededicated having been cleared of idols and pagan altars. It also symbolises the spiritual light of Judaism prevailing over the Hellenism that was becoming common by Jews at the time.

Hanukkah is symbolised by the burning of candles in a menorah or Hanukkiah. The Hanukkah menorah is a candelabra containing eight lights for each of the eight days plus the shamash or guard. The first night of the festival is marked by kindling a single flame in the Hanukkiah. Each successive night an additional flame is kindled. On the second night two flames are lit, three on the third night and so on until the eighth night when all eight flames are burned.

The Hanukkiah is placed in a window or doorway. It should be visible to the world, allowing the light of Judaism to be spread around the world.

The use of lights not only to commemorate the miracle, but to publicise it is a true reflection of Hanukkah’s other name The Festival of Lights.

The Syrian Greeks had desecrated the temple and most of the oil had been contaminated. Only one container of pure oil was found. Only the purest sanctified oil could be burned in the sacred menorah. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, but the one-day supply of oil burned for eight days.

It is the miracle of the oil that is commemorated each year. But this was preceded by some major events. The most powerful army in the world was in control of Judea. Jerusalem was in the hands of the Greeks under Antiochus. Unlike his predecessor, Antiochus would not tolerate the practice of Judaism, and the Temple
was used for the slaughter of forbidden animals and the practice of Hellenistic Pagan rituals.

Jews living in the land were becoming Hellenised. Taking on the path of least resistance, they began taking on Greek customs, religious rituals and Greek names.

Judah Maccabee and his four brothers formed a guerrilla army called the Maccabees to take on this formidable force. The Maccabees won a stunning victory over the Greek-Syrian army. The military victory of a small band of rebels over a powerful fighting machine must be a huge miracle. It allowed the holy Temple to be rededicated and for the daily services to re-commence. The miracle of the oil is the last of the miracles that occurred at this time and made it possible for the Temple
to function for a full eight days until fresh supplies of pure oil could be sourced.

The entire celebration centres on the light – the light of the oil, the light of the candles. Judaism would rather focus on this miracle rather than that of a military victory. The victory is a victory of the forces of light representing G-d’s law over the idolatrous forces of darkness. The foods enjoyed over Hanukkah represent foods cooked in oil. The menorahs are placed in windows or doorways to publicise this victory of light over darkness to the whole world.

Hanukkah is truly the Festival of Lights.


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