Tonight at sunset (the 25th day of Kislev on the Jewish Calendar) begins Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights for the Jewish People.
Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days (nights, really), and it is the anniversary of the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Solomon built the “First Temple” (see 1 Kings 7 and 8). Prior to Solomon’s Temple, the Israelites had used traveling tabernacles, mountains, and other sacred places for worship). However, when the people failed to listen to the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.), they were scattered (and Lehi and his family also left Jerusalem) and exiled to Babylon as they had been warned would happen if they did not repent and return to the Lord. The temple was destroyed in 586 BC in these wars, and remained a heap of stones during the 70 years of captivity (see Daniel 9:1-2).
The “Second Temple” was rebuilt in 516 BC. The Persians re-established the city of Jerusalem, making the rebuilding of the Temple possible. The Jewish exiles returned to their city and began construction to rebuild the temple at the same site as where the first temple had stood (see Ezra 1:1-4, 2 Chronicles 36:22-23). The people faced opposition, but continued working on the temple (Ezra 4 and 5). It was completed in 516 BC, and dedicated in 517BC.
Around 167 BC, the Syrian-Greeks of Judea forced the Jews to surrender their religious culture and adapt instead to the Hellenic culture of the time. They tried to force the Jews to worship idols and to sacrifice pigs. It was a terrible time of oppression for the Jews, both in cultural offense and religious oppression.
One family, the Maccabees (this story is included in the Catholic scriptures as well, though not protestant scriptures), refused to sacrifice pigs to the idols. They had to leave their homes and hide in the hills for safety. From these hidden places in the hills, they fought for Jewish freedom until reclaiming the Temple in 165 BC. This was a huge victory for the Jews, but the Temple itself had been desecrated by the Greeks.
The Jews had to work very hard to clean up the Temple, even rebuilding the altar itself. When it was time to continue Temple worship, they needed to light the Menorah, which was kept by the Ark of the Covenant. However, the Jewish people could find no oil that had been dedicated and set apart by the high priest (proper authority!), worthy enough to light the Menorah. They finally found a single flask of oil with its seal intact, and used it to rededicate the Temple.
One single flask of oil was only enough to light the Menorah for a single day, and it took a week for new olive oil to be dedicated and consecrated and set apart. Yet after all the people had been through to reclaim the Temple, they did not want to delay its dedication. So they used the one flask of oil they had found, just to light it for the first day. However, the Menorah remained lit for the entire eight days until new oil was available. This was a miracle that showed the world that God’s presence, the sheckinah, had returned to the Temple – because they had returned to His ordinances and had proven repentant by being obedient to the prophets.
So today, Hannukah is celebrated to honor the Temple and remember the miracle of the oil in the Menorah. It reminds us how God protects and provides when we are obedient to Him and follow His prophets. It reminds us how we enter His presence by making and keeping covenants. It reminds us that if we look to Him, we will have sufficient for our needs. It reminds us that our agency is not just the ability to choose, but the ability to choose whom to follow (Jehovah or Lucifer). It reminds us that we must stand firm in holy places, and not be moved, even under persecution and oppression. It reminds us that He has called us to accomplish His work, even in both the defending of (Declaration 1) and the building of Temples, and doing Temple work as it is available – which includes missionary work, family history work, and ordinance work.
There is a light set apart in the Menorah, either highest or in the middle (usually both), called שמש (shamash) that represents God, and is the light by which we work. The other candles are lit one night at a time, progressing until the eighth candle is lit on the final night. Families often eat fried foods like potato pancakes, or latkes, and exchange gifts each night (yes! eight nights of presents!).
These are the prayers said for Hanukkah, during the lighting of candles:
ברוך אתה ה’א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו להדליק נר שלחנוכה.
Transliteration: Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, asher qiddeshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu lehadliq ner shellahanuka.
Translation: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light[s].”
ברוך אתה ה’ א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, שעשה נסים לאבותינו בימים ההם בזמן הזה.
Transliteration: Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, she’asa nisim la’avoteinu ba’yamim ha’heim ba’z’man ha’ze.
Translation: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time…”
Josephus tells (Jewish Antiquities xii. 7, § 7, #323) how the Jewish people came to make the memory of this miracle a tradition among the people, to honor the Lord and to have gratitude for the people having access to a Temple once again:
“Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival…”
This second temple celebrated at Hanukkah was renovated by Herod in 19 BC, and became known as “Herod’s Temple” until it was destroyed (as prophesied by Christ) by the Romans in 70 AD. Only the lower levels of the Western wall survived, and can still be visited in Jerusalem. Prophecies in all three Abrahamic religions state that the Temple, now as the Third Temple, will be rebuilt prior to the return of the Messiah (Jesus Christ) (Ezekial 40-48). This is well known; what is less-well-known is that the Jews in Jerusalem have established the “Temple Institute” which is already planning and organizing the rebuilding of the Temple, even to the prayers and ordinances being re-established on-site. They have already made the sacred Temple vessels, items, and decorations for the Temple as commanded in the old Testament. They are ready to fill it, just waiting for the site to be reclaimed and the Temple itself to be built. Orson Pratt said (Journal of the Discourses, volume 19) that the Temple would be rebuilt in the same way we build our other Temples, and by those who are true Saints and believe in the true Messiah.
What a fascinating thought, in the context of being at-one, in light of being taught that all truths will be brought together into one great Truth, to consider the idea of the three Abrahamic traditions being finally re-united as one-truth in effort to rebuild the Temple: one donating the land (Islam), one donating the materials (Jewish), and one to restore its ordinances (LDS)?!
Together, we can build its walls!
These will be walls built by covenants, and so we start by becoming His people!