Hanukkah: Fact and Fiction

In this special Study, Hanukkah: Fact and Fiction, Nehemia Gordon explains that the real story of Hannukah, where the Rabbinic tradition of lighting candles for eight days comes from, and how the victory should be celebrated today. Sandra wrote: “This is excellent information! Thank you for your dedication in getting the truth out and helping to dissolve fiction so that fact can shine through!”

The Seleucid Greek Jewish Persecution

The miracle of Hanukkah was born in the flames of the Seleucid Greek persecution of the Jews. This began three years before the first Hanukkah when the Seleucid Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, issued a series of decrees designed to eradicate the Jewish faith. The first round of anti-Jewish decrees went into force on the 3rd day of Tishrei in the year 168 BCE. These decrees are recorded in a 1st century CE document called "The Scroll of Fasting" (Megillat Ta'anit) which says:

"on the third of Tishrei... the evil Greek kingdom decreed eradication of Israel saying to them, 'deny the Kingdom of heaven' and say 'we have no portion with the God of Israel' and do not mention the name of the God of heaven on your mouths." Megillat Ta'anit, Tishrei

These initial decrees were followed with a prohibition against practicing circumcision and observing the Sabbath. Three months later, on the 25th day of Kislev, the Greeks re-dedicated the Jerusalem Temple as a sanctuary to the sun-god Apollo, sacrificing pigs on the altar. This was the straw that broke the camel's back, and it led to a Jewish uprising.

After three years of fighting, the Maccabees liberated the Temple, tore down the defiled altar, and on the third anniversary of its defilement dedicated a new one. To this day, the full name of the holiday is Hanukkat Ha-Mizbe'ach, Dedication of the Altar, in memory of this event. The real miracle of Hanukkah is the victory of a band of ill-equipped and untrained farmers and priests defeating a world super-power that tried to force them to eat pig, give up circumcision and the Sabbath, and forbade them to utter the name of our heavenly Father Yehovah.

Three hundred years after that first Hanukkah, the Roman emperor Hadrian re-instituted the anti-Jewish decrees. One Jewish leader, Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, was burned in the Roman fires for defying these decrees. According to the Talmud, he was wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive "because he used to pronounce the name the way it is written" (Avodah Zarah 17b-18a). This rabbi was only one of thousands martyred by the Romans for publicly proclaiming the name of our heavenly Father "Yehovah"!

Hanukkah as a Day of Joy

The festival of Hanukkah is not commanded in the Tanach but there is nothing inherently wrong with it as long as you can separate fact from fiction. In Biblical terms, Hanukkah would be classified as a Yom Simchah, a day of joy. Numbers chapter 10 verse 10 talks about blowing the silver trumpets "on your days of joy, on your appointed times, and on your new moons". In modern times, the Jewish People observe a number of Days of Joy such as Jerusalem Day in commemoration of the liberation of the Holy City in 1967 and Independence Day in memory of Israel surviving an invasion by several Arab armies in 1948-1949. I celebrate these Days of Joy every year to give honor to the miracles that our Creator bestowed upon us in these two historic events.

Up until the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE the Jewish People observed dozens of days of joy in honor of great events that took place in that period. These days of joy are listed in the aforementioned 1st century document Megillat Ta'anit, the Scroll of Fasting. The scroll consists of a list of dates and associated events that were observed as national days of joy. The purpose of the scroll was to instruct people when not to fast. Fasting is associated with mourning and sadness and it would not be appropriate to fast on a day of joy. The most important day of joy listed in Megillat Ta'anit was Nicanor Day, which commemorated the decisive battle between Judah the Maccabee and the Seleucid Greek general Nicanor on the 13th of Adar in 161 BCE. When the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, all of the days of joy were abolished with the sole exception of the 8 days of Hanukkah.

The Hanukkah “Miracle”

Today, Hanukkah is best known as a festival commemorating a miracle that supposedly happened in 165 BCE, when the Maccabees liberated the Temple from the Seleucid Greeks. According to the well-known story, the victorious Maccabees searched the Temple looking for olive oil to use in the Menorah, the candelabrum that according to Exodus 27:20-21 must be lit every day. People had been killed in the liberation of the Temple and therefore all its contents were deemed ritually impure. The Maccabees desperately searched for a vial of oil with its seal intact because the seal would shield it from ritual impurity of the dead. This is in accordance with Numbers 19:15,

"And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean."

According to the story, the Maccabees only found a single vial of oil with the seal intact and immediately lit the Menorah with this single dose of oil. Ritual purification from the dead is a seven-day process (Numbers 19) so they could not work on producing a new batch of pure oil until the eighth day. The miracle, we are told, was that the single vial of oil burned for eight days instead of one, giving the Maccabees time to prepare a new batch of ritually pure oil.

The problem with this wonderful miracle is that it never happened. It is a pure work of fiction invented after the Temple was destroyed. It is not mentioned in a single source that pre-dates the Destruction of the Temple. To this day, the full name of the holiday of Hanukkah (Dedication) is Hanukkat Ha-Mizbe'ach, which means "Dedication of the Altar". After the Romans destroyed the altar in 70 CE, the rabbis invented the miracle of the oil to give new significance to this festival.

As its name implies, the original significance of Hanukkah was the dedication of the altar in the year 165 BCE. The Seleucid Greeks had desecrated the altar in the Temple by sacrificing a pig on it to the sun-god Apollo. They did this on the 25th of Kislev in the year 168 BCE. After liberating the Temple in 165 BCE, the Maccabbees tore down the defiled altar and built a new one. They dedicated this new altar on the 25th of Kislev, three years to the day after it was desecrated by the Greeks.

Why Eight Days of Hankkuah

The historical events surrounding Hanukkah are described in two historical works called 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, written shortly after the events took place. Both of these books describe the events in excruciating detail. Both books tell the story of the liberation of the Temple but neither says a single word about the alleged miracle of the oil. Instead they give three reasons for celebrating Hanukkah for eight days. The first reason was a miracle that repeated itself in the days of Moses and Solomon, both times associated with eight days of dedication. When Moses dedicated Aaron and his sons as priests in the desert, the ceremony lasted eight days. On the eighth and final day of the dedication, a fire came out of heaven and consumed the sacrifices that Aaron and his sons offered on the altar (Lev 9:1, 24). This miracle happened again when Solomon dedicated his altar for eight days (2Chr 7:1, 9). The book of 2 Maccabees explicitly mentions this as the reason for eight days of Hanukkah.

The second reason for eight days was as a sort of "Second Sukkot". In Numbers 9 it says that if someone fails to partake of the Passover sacrifice in the First Month they can observe a Second Passover in the Second Month. The Maccabees had failed to observe Sukkot while they were fighting the Greeks. As soon as they liberated the Temple, they followed the example of Numbers 9 and made up for this with a Second Sukkot, as 2 Maccabees explains:

"And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. " (10:6)

Of course, Sukkot is seven days with the Eighth of Assembly (Shemini Atzeret) tacked on to the end, hence the eight days of Hanukkah.

The book of 2 Maccabees gives a third, and rather bizarre reason, for the festival of Hanukkah. Apparently this festival existed in some form or another going back to the time of Nehemiah when it was known as "The Feast of Fire". 2 Maccabees explains that when Nehemiah first offered sacrifices on his altar he expected a fire to come down from heaven just as it had in the time of Moses and Solomon. The same miracle also happened when David first offered sacrifices on his altar (1Chr 21:26) and when Elijah rebuilt the altar on Mount Carmel in his challenge to the priests of Baal (1Ki 18:38). Naturally when no fire materialized, Nehemiah was extremely disappointed. There was a legend that the priests of the 1st Temple hid the last burning embers of Solomon's altar in a cave. Nehemiah sent priests to retrieve it, but all they found after seventy years was "thick liquid". They collected this thick oil and poured it on the altar but nothing happened. Then suddenly it ignited, as 2 Maccabees explains:

"When this was done and some time had passed and the sun, which had been clouded over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled." (1:22).

What was the oil that spontaneously ignited when exposed to sun light? 2 Maccabees explains:

'Nehemiah and his associates called this "nephthar," which means purification, but by most people it is called naphtha.' (1:36).

Naphtha was a well-known naturally occurring petroleum product, but it did not normally ignite when exposed to light. This oil spontaneously igniting when exposed to sun light gave birth to the "The Feast of Fire".

Here's the really important thing. The two books of Maccabees give these three reasons for Hanukkah: 1) Moses and Solomon's eight-day dedications, 2) Second Sukkot, and 3) Nehemiah's "Festival of Fire". Not a single word about the miracle of oil burning for eight days! Josephus also talks about Hanukkah and refers to it as the "Festival of Lights" but says nothing about the miracle of the oil burning for eight days. Instead he says:

"we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival." (Josephus, Antiquities 12:325)

If the Festival of Lights really had something to do with eight days of miraculous oil, wouldn't Josephus say this? He obviously was unaware of this reason for the festival. The story of the eight days of miraculous oil is also missing from the Scroll of Fasting, that 1st century CE document that lists all the days of joy of the Jews of that time. The first time this miracle is ever mentioned is in the Babylonian Talmud (Sabbath 21b) in a section written over three hundred years after the events.

Should Hanukkah be Celebrated

If you choose to celebrate Hanukkah, avoid the part that adds to God's Torah. Specifically, the blessing over the candles which thanks God for commanding us to light the candles, something He never commanded. This is a violation of Deuteronomy 4:2 which says:

"Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of Yehovah your God which I command you."

The same commandment is reiterated in Deuteronomy 12:32 [13:1] and a third time in Proverbs 30:6:

"Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar."

Also, be sure to separate fact from fiction. Hanukkah means "dedication". The full name of the holiday is Channukat Hamizbe'ach, Dedication of the Altar. The Maccabees had to rededicate the Temple altar that had been desecrated by the Seleucid Greeks. They celebrated this dedication for 8 days in memory of the 8 days that both Moses and Solomon celebrated at the dedication of the Tabernacle and First Temple. The alleged miracle of 8 days of oil was not originally part of Hanukkah. It is not mentioned in the two books of Maccabees written shortly after the events. It was only made up after the altar was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, to give the holiday new purpose. The real miracle of Hanukkah is the victory of a band of ill-equipped and untrained farmers and priests defeating a world super-power that had tried to force them to eat pig and give up circumcision and the Sabbath.

As I look around Jerusalem at the Hanukkah lamps peaking out of windows, and decorating doorways, I remember all those who died in centuries past in the fires of persecution for living by the word of God and proclaiming His holy name. I am thankful that today, despite social pressures and traditions, I am allowed to proclaim His name without fear of death.

Photo by Nehemia Gordon featuring Georgia posing in front of an olive oil Hanukiyah in Jerusalem. Her look of confusion is over the benediction Orthodox Jews make when lighting Hannukah lamps.

Makor Hebrew Foundation is a 501c3 tax-deductible not for profit organization.

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  • Paul Case says:

    If Hannukah was a Second Sukkot for the Maccabees, then they themselves would NOT have done it in the following year. i.e. they would have just done the regular Sukkot according at the regular time. Thus no Hannukah would have existed for the very people who supposedly ‘started’ it.

  • Zhui Feng says:

    Interesting about the lack of evidence for the miraculous burning of the lamp.

    Not that I am convinced it happened but, 1,000 year old Olive Oil would probably be gelled up and would burn for a very long time, as I pointed out to my friend as he headed off to the Synagogue December 24th.

    It is not unreasonable to believe that they found a sealed vial from the time of King Solomon still containing Olive Oil.
    A resent archeological discovery in China revealed a bronze vial 2,000 years old containing a sweet smelling yellow liquid that was labeled the Elixer of Life.
    I read about it in Science Alert magazine 2019, Google News.
    As it turns out, their Fountain of Youth Elixir was poisonous!
    This is good info Nehemia! Thanks for your work.

    Shalom and may we have many Days of Joy!

  • Wendy Stephens says:

    Absolutely beautiful! I love truth, it does set us free. Thank you Nehemia

  • donald murphy says:

    dt 4:2 is what I base my beliefs on. thank u. keep repeating that fact until we can grasp the meaning.

    • donald murphy says:

      about the oil staying clean, don’t believe it to possible since uncleaness is transferable isn’t it because WE’RE COMMANDED NOT TO TOUCH IT.

  • Nancy Fisher says:

    Thank you! It is a relief to know that I am not doing something awful by not making a big hoopla about this day of joy! Keep up the good work.

  • Natalee Nielsen says:

    I feel so humbly blessed to have found you through you tube Nehemia. Your enthusiasm for the truth of The Word is beautiful and such a gift from Yehovah. I appreciate very much that every time I hear you speak or read your teachings that each one is purely fact based – no opinions – just the hebrew words with their meanings. This teaching has freed me and given me answers of truth instead of made up fiction from humans. We sheep all need the solid food of truth. Discernment of righteousness proclaims the truth. Sadly, when the entire truth isn’t known, because we have been fed small and large twistings of reality from inappropriate translations, we’ve lead ours in error to our own embarrassment and regret.

    My heart is so thankful and grateful that Yehovah has chosen you for such a time as this. He’s working through you to expose the truth to all of us who have been seeking it for years – in my case for decades.

    Your presentation of the Hebrew scriptures is such a joy to watch because the joy and excitement that I feel finally has a chance to smile and rejoice with you. Your love of finding the answers in the truth of His Word are so delightful. It’s so much fun.

    Blessings to you of continued joy in Him, and may His Spirit of Truth continue to unravel new and exciting layers of Holy reality to you:)

    Thank you so very much for your faithfulness and love in searching for all truth and then sharing it!



  • Pilgrim Bobby says:

    Understatement of the Ages: “This was the straw that broke the camel’s back …,” but well noted. As an aside, although our heavenly father, I find the Hebrew conception of G_d nonetheless harder to accommodate and please than any Greek deity. In my everyday life, G-d seems a hard taskmaster and so impossible to placate. Hebrews 12:6, to bring in the NT if I may, says “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth”, and Jesus is quoted in Revelation 3:19, in his warning to the seven churches of Asia, as saying “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent”. Is there an equivalent passage in the Old Testament that the Lord chasteneth loved ones, and how should we interpret the passage? How can I please the Lord our G-d?

    • Nancy says:

      It sounds like you are having such a hard time trying to figure out what you are supposed to do. May I suggest you apply the KISS principal? Just do what the Bible tells you to do and leave all the Churchianity and religious rules behind! Of course you have to read it for yourself and ask YaHovah to guide you.

    • Shawn Johnston says:

      Duet. 8:5, 2 Sam. 7:14, Job 5, 33

  • Ralston says:

    Thank you, it was good learning, may Yahowah bless you.

  • jeffkat14wowwaycom says:

    Thanks again…I don’t know where your brain stores all that knowledge.

  • Thomas Garza says:

    So, according to Exodus 25, is not the current Hanukkah menorah another case of; ” adding to” ? If Exodus 25 is the precedent for THE Menorah, any deviation of design or application of Use would technically be a violation of a Holy Command ? Any thought ? Thanks

  • Jimmy Estrada says:

    I know this seems like a silly question, but

    The Greeks did their evil worship 25th of Kislev in the year 168 BCE. And the Maccabbees liberated the Temple in 165 BCE, do we know what month and day of 165 BCE ?

  • I’m a little confused about something. Under “The Hanukkah Miracle” last paragraph, if the Temple was torn down and a new one built (165 BCE)after the desecration of the Temple (168 BCE) which is 3 years later. Wouldn’t that make the new altar date 171 BCE?

    Thanks for your lessons

    • Susan Mcgrane says:

      There is no year 0 between 1 BCE/BC and 1 CE/AD. However, there may have been a zero moment as 1 BC ended and CE/AD 1 began, but there was not a whole year that would have been labeled 0.
      Year…..168….165….1BCE*CE1…..200…..2018…& beyond (hopefully LOL)
      When counting years from BCE to CE/AD your dates decrease, as you get closer to CE/AD. Once you get into the CE/AD your dates increase.
      Thinking of it as math number line may help with 0 being the middle only in history “0” would be where BCE & CE/AD meet-everything on the left is a negative (-) number, everything on the right is a positive (+) number.
      Hope this helps & has not confused you more.

    • daniel says:

      ALTAR torn down, Temple thoroughly cleansed. Then a NEW ALTAR built in the Temple. That Temple wasn’t destroyed until A.D. 68 (according to Pharisee records), or 70 (secular history). And like Susan points out, BC=negative numbers and AD=positive numbers.

  • Kate Moore says:

    Thank you for the truth. I don’t want to trade invented “Christian ” traditions for rabbinic traditions.

  • Lynette Barton says:

    Shabbat Shalom Nehemyah! I have always wondered, and still do as to why the books of the Maccabees are NOT included in the Hebrew or Jewish Bibles and are in; of all places…the Catholic Bible, in the very Bible of another group of people that tried to eradicate the Jews. Why is this? It makes no sense to me.

    Thank you for all you do to bring truth to the ‘Remnant’ of Y’hovah. Oh…P.S. your Georgia is sooo cute! What a sweetie!

  • Tommy Wilson says:

    Thank you very much for writing this! It answers many questions and makes total sense. Shalom and Blessings!

  • Harry Brooks says:

    You gave me incentive to drag out my Josephus. How ‘bout it! Shalom aleichem!

  • Daniel Monroe says:

    Wonderful overview. I missed 2 Maccabees 1:22 ! Wouldn’t that be miracle enough? YeHoVaH is indeed Great!

  • We need to continue to stand on what is really true. There are many Christians who are “discovering” the Hebraic roots of their faith which is their journey for deeper truth. We must be careful to maintain Yehovah’s truth and not man-made tradition or stories. Thank you Nehemia for your passion for the Father’s truth.

  • Tammy says:

    Every year when Hanukkah comes up, I al always leary of celebrating. Just because I don’t want to just follow tradition anymore. I really appreciate your info. What are your thoughts of people havingHanakkiahs? (Spell?) So many think they are Menorahs. Would that be adding to something written in his word?

  • Christine Hymel says:

    Thank you so much for this explanation. It was very enlightening (pun intended). I’ve learned so much.

  • Reyes Nava says:

    I can see why Georgia would be confused, adding and diminishing from Yehovah’s commandments:

    Allowing pork to be eaten, doing away with physical circumcision and replacing the Sabbath. Who would dare try to change the unchangeable word of the Living God? That is a head scratcher.

    • Reyes Nava says:

      Whether the superpower be a nation or a theology they come and go.
      But the obedient remnant of Israel, the people of the covenant shall endure until the duration of the universe.

      Shalom shalom

  • Laurie Giesler says:

    Thank you for setting the record straight. Far too long have our people been lied to. It is time for truth to reign. I never pray the standard prayer for the same reason you give – it is nowhere in Torah.

  • Ana Lopes says:

    Thank you, Nehemia for this amazing explanation!

    Georgia is so cute!