The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah, is a celebration that takes place in the middle of winter each year. But why does it last eight days?
The most widely heard explanation is that the eight days commemorate a miracle in which a small amount of oil burned for not one but eight days. However, this is not actually the original reason why Hanukkah lasts so long, a scholar of Jewish history told Live Science.
But no matter the explanation, Hanukkah has always lasted eight days, even the first year it was celebrated in ancient times.
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The word “Hanukkah” derives from the Hebrew verb “to dedicate.” The festival was established in the year 163 B.C. C. when a Jewish revolt led by warriors known as the Maccabees managed to liberate Jerusalem from the Seleucid Empire. The Selucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, outlawed Jewish practices and set up an altar to Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple, sacrificing pigs there.
Historical sources state that Hannukah was instituted to commemorate the ritual of purification and rededication of the temple, allowing Jewish worship to resume there. But why Hanukkah lasts eight days is complex.
The usual explanation is the “miracle of the oil pot.” (A vessel is a container.)
According to this legend, the temple’s “eternal flame”, which was supposed to burn continuously, had been extinguished while the Seleucids controlled the city.
After the Seleucids were driven from Jerusalem, the Maccabees are said to have searched for oil to light the temple flame; but they could only find one pot of religiously pure oil, enough to feed the flame for one day.
However, when the temple’s flame was ignited from the single pot of oil, it miraculously lasted eight days, long enough to complete the religious purification process and make more oil, legend has it.
According to some traditions, these are the eight days commemorated by Hanukkah.
The association of this story with the eight days of Hanukkah is reinforced by the ritual of lighting candles on the nine-branched candlestick known as the Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, which lights many Jewish homes for the holiday. Each main branch of the chandelier represents a day of Hanukkah, while a ninth candle, the auxiliary candle, or “shamash” in Hebrew, is used to light the others.
But david kramer (opens in a new tab), a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, points out that the story of the oil miracle was only written down several hundred years after Hanukkah was instituted; Instead, it appears to date to between AD 100 and 600, when the collection of Jewish teachings known as the Talmud was written, although much of it was based on earlier traditions.
As such, the story of the oil miracle does not appear to have been known until that time; and historical sources make it clear that the first Hanukkah lasted eight days so that the important Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot could be observed, he said.
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Sukkot also lasts eight days (or seven days in some Jewish traditions) and usually takes place in September or October, but it could not be observed in the year the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem; and so Hanukkah was set up to allow it to take place, Kraemer said.
“What they did was when they re-purified the temple, they celebrated Sukkot,” Kraemer told Live Science. “Originally, the eight days came from the fact that Hanukkah was a late observance of Sukkot.”
According to the Jewish religious calendar, Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev and continues until the second day of the month of Teslev, a date known as Zos Chanukah that is particularly sacred.
The Jewish months, however, are based on a luni-solar calendar and move compared to the calendar used in most countries, which is based on the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII (himself a modification of the Julian calendar introduced in 46 BC by the Roman Leader Julius Caesar.)
The result is that the Hanukkah dates are also moved; And while the start of Hanukkah is usually around Christmas on December 25, it can also be as early as Thanksgiving (the last “Thanksgivukkah” was in 2013 and the next will be in 2070) or as late as the 27th. from December.
In 2022, Hanukkah will begin on Sunday, December 18; and will end on December 26.