For only the second time in our present century Hanukkah overlaps with the Christian Feast of Christmastide. Tonight as we begin our Vigil of Christmas many of our friends and people we have long considered family will be lighting the first candle of the Festival of Lights.
The Jewish historian Josephus records that after the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem the triumphant Judas Maccabeus commanded that a great eight-day celebration be held. Josephus refers to it as “The Festival of Lights” and supposes that “the reason was, because this liberty (i. e. the freedom to worship as they choose) beyond our hopes appeared to us”.
Writing in around CE 93 or 94 he gives us the “historical” version of the commemoration however the more traditional story comes from the Megillat Antiochus, a Talmundic scroll possibly dated as early as the 2nd Century CE. It ends with the following words:
After this, the sons of Israel went up to the Temple and rebuilt its gates and purified the Temple from the dead bodies and from the defilement. And they sought after pure olive oil to light the lamps therewith, but could not find any, except one bowl that was sealed with the signet ring of the High Priest from the days of Samuel the prophet and they knew that it was pure. There was in it [enough oil] to light [the lamps therewith] for one day, but the God of heaven whose name dwells there put therein his blessing and they were able to light from it eight days. Therefore, the sons of Ḥashmonai made this covenant and took upon themselves a solemn vow, they and the sons of Israel, all of them, to publish amongst the sons of Israel, [to the end] that they might observe these eight days of joy and honour, as the days of the feasts written in [the book of] the Law; [even] to light in them so as to make known to those who come after them that their God wrought for them salvation from heaven. In them, it is not permitted to mourn, neither to decree a fast [on those days], and anyone who has a vow to perform, let him perform it.
It is that miracle along with the victory over oppression that is commemorated tonight at sunset as that first candle of the eight is lit and the first dedication proclaimed. To all our loved ones who observe that ritual and recite those prayers we wish Chag Urim Sameach!