Hanukkah - Judaism
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Canaanite amphora
Canaanite amphora, for olive oil
or wine (Bronze Age, about 1300 BC)

Like all other farming communities, Jewish people celebrated harvest festivals when important crops were safely harvested and stored. One of these harvest festivals was Passover, in March or April, when the first of the spring barley was ripe. Another was Sukkot, in October, celebrating the fruit harvest. Hanukkah, in December, was a third harvest festival, when the olive harvest was picked and pressed into olive oil. In Israel, olive oil was an important way to get fat to eat, and also the main source of fuel for lamps to light the dark winter nights. For thousands of years, what people celebrated at Hanukkah was having plenty of oil to get through the winter. People ate foods fried in oil, like pancakes, to celebrate the festival.

To make this festival more exciting, it happens that people harvest olives at just about the darkest time of the year, when the days are the shortest. People all over the world have a festival of lights in the late fall or wintertime, like Yule, Christmas, the Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Chinese New Year, the Inca festival of Inti Raymi, or Diwali. Jewish people lit oil lamps at Hanukkah to fight off the darkness.

Maccabee lamp
Maccabee olive oil lamp. You pour olive oil
in the big hole and stick the wick in the small hole.

When the Jews returned to Israel from the Babylonian Captivity in 537 BC, some Jewish religious leaders had developed fancy ideas about what Jewish religion should be like. They wanted people to worship God and only God, as the Commandments said, and they thought this traditional harvest festival was old-fashioned. The priests weren't farmers. They were city people. What did they care about the olive oil harvest? They looked for a more Godly reason for the holiday. At first the reason seems to have been a celebration of the dedication of the Second Temple in 516 BC.

Hasmonean Coin
Maccabean coin from about 100 BC,
showing a menorah with 7 branches.

In 167 BC, the Seleucid king Antiochus made it illegal to be Jewish in Israel, and sacrificed pigs on the altar at the Second Temple. Angry Jews revolted against his rule, and under their leaders the Maccabees (it means the Hammers) the Jews soon regained their independence. In 165 BC the Jews rededicated the Second Temple, and again they held a big party. The party lasted for eight days, possibly because people had not been able to celebrate Sukkot a few months earlier, and Sukkot was an eight-day festival. Early sources like the Book of Maccabees don't mention oil, or miracles, but there are many images of branched oil lamps or menorahs. The Gemara, written about 500 AD, connects the olive oil festival, the festival of lights, and the rededication of the Second Temple under the Maccabees by saying that when the Maccabees regained control of the Temple, there was only enough olive oil left for one night of the eight-day festival, but God made a miracle so that the olive oil lasted all eight days. Nobody knows who first told this story, or why, but it does make a very neat way of tying together these three different ideas and making Hanukkah less about farming and more about God!

Hanukkah in the Middle Ages
Learn by Doing - Celebrating Hanukkah

Bibliography and further reading about Hanukkah:

Main Judaism page
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 28 April, 2017