(My Jewish Learning) The Hebrew word Chanukah literally means “dedication.” (In modern Hebrew, a hanukkat habayit refers to a ceremony or gathering held to mark the dedication of a new home — or, a housewarming party.)
This definition points to the holiday’s origin as a celebration of the rededication of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. Beginning in 167 BCE, the Jews of Judea rose up in revolt against the oppression of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire. The military leader of the first phase of the revolt was Judah the Maccabee, the eldest son of the priest Mattityahu (Mattathias). In the autumn of 164, Judah and his followers were able to capture the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been turned into a pagan shrine. They cleansed it and rededicated it to Israel’s God. This event was observed in an eight-day celebration, which was patterned on Sukkot, the autumn festival of huts. Much later rabbinic tradition ascribes the length of the festival to a miraculous small amount of oil that burned for eight days. This rededication became enshrined as the festival of Chanukah.
Other meanings have been ascribed to the word as well. The first three Hebrew letters spell out the word chanu, which means they rested. The final two letters have the numerical equivalent of twenty-five. This can be understood as referring to the Maccabbees resting from their fight against the Syrian Greeks on the 25th of Kislev, the Hebrew date on which Chanukah begins.
Chanukah also shares the same root as the word for education — chinuch in Hebrew. One Hasidic text suggests that the light of Chanukah is a foretaste of the light of the messiah and is meant to educate us for our eventual redemption.
Since Hanukkah is not biblically ordained, the liturgy for the holiday is not well developed. It is actually a quite minor festival. However, it has become one of the most beloved of Jewish holidays. In an act of defiance against those in the past and in the present who would root out Jewish practice, the observance of Hanukkah has assumed a visible community aspect. Jews will often gather for communal celebrations and public candle lighting. At such celebrations, Hanukkah songs are sung and traditional games such as dreidel are played.
Like Passover, Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates the liberation from oppression. It also provides a strong argument in favor of freedom of worship and religion. In spite of the human action that is commemorated, never far from the surface is the faith that the liberation was possible only thanks to the miraculous support of the Divine.