Robert L. Millet Blog Posts
Publications Director of BYU Religious Studies Center
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Dedication, begins this Friday night at sundown. The Hebrew word Hanukkah actually means “dedication.” The eight-day festival in 2009 runs from Saturday, December 12, to Saturday, December 19. It is a holiday period of considerable significance, both religiously and historically, to Jews the world over. But it should also be of some importance to Christians, including Latter-day Saints, for without the events celebrated in Hanukkah there would have been no Christmas.
Here’s the story: The ancient Jewish people in the land of Israel faced a grave threat when the Greco-Syrian despot Antiochus IV became king of the Seleucid empire in 175 BC. Syria controlled Judea at the time, but the Jews had been treated with tolerance by previous Syrian rulers. Antiochus IV, however, saw himself as a Greek deity in human form (he even adopted the name Epiphanes), and he set a goal to convert all the peoples of his realm to the worship of the Greek pantheon.
Seeking this goal with the Jews, Antiochus had his troops occupy Jerusalem and its Jewish temple, replacing the ceremonies that honored the God of Israel with pagan rites, and converting the edifice into a shrine for Zeus. The temple was defiled. Pigs were slaughtered on its altar by false priests in acts of disdain for the law of Moses and Jewish values.
Jewish religion in general was outlawed. The scriptures (books of what we call the Old Testament) were confiscated and burned. Jewish ordinances and practices, such as circumcision and prayer to the Lord, became capital crimes. The historical book of 1 Maccabees reports that “the women who had circumcised their children they (the Syrians) put to death under the decree, hanging the babies around their necks, and destroying their families and the men who had circumcised them” (1 Maccabees 1:60). Had not something happened to change the course of Antiochus’ program of cultural genocide against the Jews, their religion and identity would have been obliterated within a few generations.
But something did happen. In 167 BC, inspired by an Aaronic priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, the people of Judea revolted against the Syrian occupiers. Their war of independence was led by a Hasmonean priest known as Judah Maccabee. Often called the Hasomonean Revolt, or alternatively the Maccabean Revolt, the insurrection gained strength and was ultimately successful in repulsing the Syrian forces. By the winter month of Kislev (around our December) in 164 BC, the Jewish freedom fighters had recaptured Jerusalem’s temple mount, and liberated the temple from the pagan Syrians. As the war continued, the Maccabean forces eventually drove the Syrians out of the land of Israel.
Having freed Jerusalem, the Jews undertook to cleanse and rededicate their holy temple. According to rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud (TB Shabbat 21:b), when the Hasmonean priests entered the temple they found only one jar of consecrated olive oil to light the great seven-branched lamp (menorah) in the temple holy place for a single day. But anxious to rededicate the edifice, the high priest poured the oil into the seven cups on the menorah branches, and lit the lamp. The oil that was only enough for one day burned for eight whole days, enough time for new oil to be pressed and consecrated. This was seen as a miracle and a sign that God had been with the Jews in establishing their freedom and saving their religion and identity. The eight-day dedication period was celebrated by the Jews in Israel, and eventually throughout the world, each winter from that very year until the present, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, and has always been known as festival of Hanukkah, the “feast of dedication.”
Modern Jews do a number of things in their Hanukkah celebrations. The first, and most important, is the lighting of Hanukkah lights. A nine-branched Hanukkah menorah (known in Hebrew as a Hanukiah) is the main instrument of the lighting. Small candles or vials of olive oil are placed in the arms of the menorah, one of which is elevated above the other eight. On the first night of Hanukkah, the elevated candle (known as the Shamash) is lit, followed by one other candle which represents the first day of Hanukkah. On the second night of Hanukkah, the Shamash and two candles are lit, on the third night three, and so forth until the eighth night of Hanukkah, when the Shamash and all eight candles are lit. The lit Hanukiah is placed in a windowsill each night so that all in the community can see that the Jewish family is celebrating the festival.
Other Hanukkah activities include the preparation and eating of foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (spicey, fried potato pancakes) and donuts known as sufganiot. The frying in oil is a reminder of the miracle of the oil. The old practice of giving children coins to spend at Hanukkah has evolved into a gift-giving tradition for the holiday season. And children often play a game with a small, four-sided top called a dreidel. Sometimes Hanukkah is called a minor festival, but this is only because it is not mandated in the Torah (the scriptural law of Moses). In practice it is a major Jewish holiday period, widely celebrated and loved.
Those who celebrate Christmas each December may find it of interest to know that Jesus, who was genuinely Jewish, traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukkah. The Gospel of John reports, “It was . . . the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22–23). Jesus honored the Hanukkah festival the same way he honored the Passover and other feasts: he taught the people of his own divine identity and mission.
Christians also ought to consider this: If there had been no Hasmonean revolt, and if Jerusalem and the temple had not been liberated and rededicated—if Antiochus and the Syrians had succeeded in obliterating Jewish religion and identity—then there would not have been a Jewish village called Nazareth, nor would there have been a Davidic Jewish village called Bethlehem. There would have been no Jewish nation awaiting the coming of that Redeemer. The entire setting for the birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth would not have existed!
But, thanks be to heaven, there was a revolt, and the Jewish nation not only survived but thrived. And because of these events, the way was prepared for the first Christmas. It seems entirely appropriate at this season that we join in wishing each other “Happy Holidays.” Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to all!
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Recently, many Saints attended one of twelve dedication services for the Draper Utah Temple, the one hundred twenty-ninth operating temple, held March 20–22. Additionally, tens of thousands participated in the Sunday afternoon session through a satellite broadcast to meetinghouses and stake centers throughout Utah. For many, it was a red-letter day full of excitement, gratitude, and great spiritual renewal.
An important feature of temple dedications is the sacred Hosanna Shout, first given at the Kirtland Temple on March 27, 1836 (tomorrow is the anniversary of it’s dedication). This powerful expression of praise and worship has been repeated at all temple dedications, including the Draper temple.
Some years ago I did some research on the history the Salt Lake Temple. I discovered that the sacred Hosanna Shout was given first on April 6, 1892, at the capstone-laying ceremony, and second, at the many formal dedication services beginning on April 6, 1893.
At the capstone ceremony, President George Q. Cannon, a counselor in the First Presidency, said “that there may be no misunderstanding about the manner in which the shout of Hosanna should be given when the capstone should be laid, Pres. Lorenzo Snow would drill the congregation in the shout.” Then President Snow said, “This is no ordinary order, but is—and we wish it to be distinctly understood—a sacred shout, and employed only on extraordinary occasions like the one now before us.” He urged them with these words: “We wish the Saints to feel when they pronounce this shout that it comes from their hearts. Let your hearts be filled with thanksgiving,” adding, “Now when we go before the temple and this shout goes forth, we want every man and every woman to shout these words to the very extent of their voice, so that every house in this city may tremble, the people in every portion of this city hear it and it may reach to the eternal worlds.” He finally told the congregation that the sacred shout “was given in the heavens when ‘all the sons of God shouted for joy’ [Job 38:7].”
B. H. Roberts wrote concerning this shout, “When voiced by thousands and sometimes tens of thousands in unison, and at their utmost strength, it is most impressive and inspiring. It is impossible to stand unmoved on such an occasion. It seems to fill [the site] with mighty waves of sound; and the shout of men going into battle cannot be more stirring. It gives wonderful vent to religious emotions, and is followed by a feeling of reverential awe—a sense of oneness with God.”
Some fifty thousand people were reportedly in attendance at this special occasion on the Temple Block, with thousands more watching from adjoining rooftops, windows, and even power poles. The streets near the temple were filled with those seeking to witness the exercises of that day. “There was such a jam of humanity, however, that everyone was nearly crushed,” Joseph Dean noted. “The whole block was one mass of humanity. After the people had gotten in place as well as they could the ceremonies began.” It was the largest gathering in Utah history, a record unchallenged for several decades.
When this highest granite block of the temple was in place, President Snow led the Saints in shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! to God and the Lamb! Amen! Amen! Amen!” This heartfelt thanksgiving praise was repeated three times with increasing force as the participants waved white handkerchiefs. “The spectacle and effect of this united demonstration,” wrote one witness, “was grand beyond description, the emotions of the multitude being stirred up by it to the greatest intensity of devotion and enthusiasm.”
John Lingren, a visitor from Idaho Falls, recalled, “The scene . . . [was] beyond the power of language to describe. . . . The eyes of thousands were moistened with tears in the fullness of their joy. The ground seemed to tremble with the volume of the sound which sent forth its echoes to the surrounding hills.” Another eyewitness wrote, “Everyone shouted as loud as they possibly could waving their handkerchiefs, the effect was indescribable.”
A year later, on April 6, 1893, the Church held the first of the formal dedication services. “When the great song, ‘The Spirit of God like a Fire Is Burning’ was sung by the united audience,” well-known Utah photographer and Tabernacle Choir member Charles R. Savage wrote, “a different feeling thrilled through me from any one I have ever experienced. The hosanna shout was something long to be remembered and one I never expect to hear again during my life.”
The service included the dedicatory prayer offered by President Woodruff, talks by the First Presidency, and the rendering of the awe-inspiring sacred Hosanna Shout with “the entire audience standing upon their feet and waving white handkerchiefs in concert,” Francis Hammond wrote. For Brother Hammond, “it seemed the heavenly host had come down to mingle with us.” Emmeline B. Wells noted: “This shout of Hosanna thrilled the hearts of the vast multitude, and echoed grandly through the magnificent building; so exultant and enraptured were the saints in their rejoicing that their faces beamed with gladness, and the whole place seemed glorified and sanctified in recognition of the consecration made on that momentous and never-to-be forgotten occasion.”
L. John Nuttal wrote that the shout was “rendered with a hearty good will, my heart and soul were so full of the spirit of the Lord, that I could scarcely contain myself.” At the conclusion of the soul-stirring shout, the choir immediately began singing a specially composed hymn. Choir member Thomas Griggs wrote, “Choir sang Brother Evan Stephen’s ‘Hosannah Chorus,’ the congregation joining in the latter part with the ‘Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning.’”
We’ll sing and we’ll shout with the armies of heaven,
Hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb!
Let glory to them in the highest be given,
Henceforth and forever, Amen and amen!
The combined effect of some twenty-five hundred people standing together in the upper assembly room of the temple, all joining together in the sacred shout and singing the dedication hymn, was overpowering. Many participants wept uncontrollably; others could not finish the hymn as they were so overcome by the spirit of the occasion.
James Bunting said, “It would be in vain for me to attempt a description of the interior of the Temple or to describe the heavenly feeling that pervaded all the exercises.” One account simply stated, “Each must see and hear and feel for himself.”
President Woodruff later told a congregation of Saints that “the Heavenly Host were in attendance at the [first] dedication [service] . . . and if the eyes of the congregation could be opened they would [have] seen Joseph and Hyrum [Smith], Brigham Young, John Taylor and all the good men who had lived in this dispensation assembled with us, as also Esaias, Jeremiah, and all the Holy Prophets and Apostles who had prophesied of the latter day work.” President Woodruff continued, “They were rejoicing with us in this building which had been accepted of the Lord and [when] the [Hosanna] shout had reached the throne of the Almighty,” they too had joined in the joyous shout.
As new temples are built, more and more Latter-day Saints will be in a position to participate in a temple dedication service, allowing them to shout praise to the Lord!