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
Guest blog by David Rolph Seely, professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
The Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur in Hebrew—is the most solemn and holy day of the Israelite calendar. It falls on the tenth day of the seventh month, and this year (2009) it will begin at sundown on September 27. Ancient Israelites prepared themselves by refraining from work as on the Sabbath, repenting of their sins, and fasting. The purpose of this day is described in Leviticus: “For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30). The high priest performed a series of rituals, including washing himself, offering sacrifices, and taking blood into the Holy of Holies of the temple, where he sprinkled it on the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant. The power of the Lord to cleanse his people was dramatized when the high priest cast lots over two goats. One goat was designated as belonging to the Lord and was sacrificed by the high priest. The high priest took the other goat and transferred the sins of the people to this goat by laying his hands on its head. The second goat, called the “scapegoat” in English, was driven into the wilderness, symbolizing the cleansing of the people from the stain of ritual impurity and sin.
The book of Hebrews in the New Testament teaches the doctrine of the Atonement of Christ through the symbolism of the Day of Atonement. Christians believe that Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to cleanse his people from their sins. Just as the high priest on the Day of Atonement, Jesus “by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Hebrews 9:12). Because Latter-day Saints understand the Day of Atonement was part of the law of Moses fulfilled in Christ, we do not formally celebrate this occasion, but we do regularly take of the tokens of the sacrament as symbols of the power of the redemption of Christ to cleanse us from our sins and transgressions.
After the destruction of the temple in AD 70 the Jews were no longer able to offer sacrifice, and the celebration of Yom Kippur moved from the temple to the synagogue. Today Jews celebrate Yom Kippur as the culmination of the process of repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month. For nine days Jews engage in personal retrospection and repentance, reaching out to those around them to confess their sins and ask forgiveness. On the tenth day, Yom Kippur, each individual solemnly presents him or herself before God in the synagogue in fasting and prayer seeking for divine forgiveness for their sins and shortcomings. In light of the absence of the temple, the Talmud prescribes the study and recitation of the biblical ritual described in Leviticus 16 on Yom Kippur. The meaning of Yom Kippur is eloquently expressed in Song of Songs Rabbah 6.11: “Just as a nut falls into some dirt you can take it up and wipe it and rinse it and wash it and it is restored to its former condition and is fit for eating, so however much Israel may be defiled with iniquities all the rest of the year, when the Day of Atonement comes it makes atonement for them, as it is written, ‘For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you.’”
One year my family and I experienced Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. There was complete silence in the streets throughout the day as all normal daily activities came to a complete stop. It was a vivid reminder of the need to take time, whether once a year, or once a week, to pause and inventory one’s standing with God and with each other, and to seek to find “at-one-ment” with the Lord through repentance and divine forgiveness.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Jerusalem Center professor of Archaeology and Near Eastern studies, and associate professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.
Rosh Hashannah is the annual festival holiday marking the Jewish New Year. The Hebrew term actually means “head of the year.” The festival falls on the first day of the first lunar month of the autumn season. In 2009, Rosh Hashannah will begin on Friday night, September 18, and will be celebrated all day Saturday, September 19. In many Jewish communities, a second day of Rosh Hashannah will be celebrated on Sunday, September 20.
One of the most festive of all Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashannah is one of the two High Holy Days in Judaism, the other being the solemn fasting day known as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which falls ten days afterward. The period between these two High Holy Days is known as “the Days of Awe,” a period when the Jewish faithful consider their trespasses, personal and national, reflect upon the need for repentance, and consider the future. It is significant that such a period is commenced with a festival as joyful and full of hope and anticipation for the future as Rosh Hashannah.
On Rosh Hashannah there are different ways to celebrate. Of course, many Jews will attend the special service for the new year held in their local synagogue. A significant act, stated as a command in Leviticus 23:24, is to blow the shofar (Hebrew for “ram’s horn,” translated “trumpet” in the King James Bible) on the festival day. Combinations of short, medium, and long blasts are blown on the shofar up to one hundred times during the day of Rosh Hashannah. Another practice is to enjoy fall fruits, such as pomegranates, grapes, and apples slices dipped in honey, and to give gifts of apples and honey to family and friends. Apples and honey have become an iconic symbol of Rosh Hashannah, recognized by Jews everywhere as an emblem of the festival.
Jews greet their families and friends and wish them Shannah Tovah (“a good year”) and Ktivah Vehatimah Tovah (“may you be inscribed and sealed for good”), referring to being well inscribed in the metaphoric books of life. The Talmud teaches that “three books are opened (in heaven) on Rosh Hashannah: the book of life of the wicked, the book of life of the righteous, and the book of life of those in between” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 16.b). This passage is interesting in light of New Testament references to the books from which we are judged (see Revelation 20:12) and resurrections to different glories (see John 5:28-29). The Talmud, in its own way, seems to be referring to three degrees of judgment and postmortal reward.
In the Jewish scripture called the Hebrew Bible (Christians call it the Old Testament), the day of this festival is noted as falling on the first day of “the seventh month” (Leviticus 23:24), and is not given a name. The commandment to observe the festival simply directs that day be regarded as a Sabbath and a holy convocation and instructs that the “blowing of trumpets” take place. In early Old Testament times before the Babylonian captivity, the festival was not regarded as the first day of the new year. So how did that designation come about?
While in Babylon, ancient Jews were exposed to an annual count that began with an autumnal new year, and it became expedient for them to adopt that cycle for their practical yearly reckoning. So counting the year from the first autumn month became something of a second, secular calendar for them. Though the biblical spring new year was not forgotten, over time the autumnal new year became more widely observed. And because that day fell on the same autumn day as the festival of trumpeting mentioned in Leviticus 23, the practice of calling it the “head of the year” (Rosh Hashannah) came into being—all before the time of Jesus. And one more interesting fact: it is quite likely that the “feast of the Jews” mentioned in John 5:1 was not Passover (as mentioned in some footnotes) but actually Rosh Hashannah!
So Shannah Tova to all!