From a reader:

Is it okay for us to observe Hanukkah in anyway?

It think it depends on what you mean by “observe”. We can sure watch with respect what Jews do at this time of year. After all, the Jewish festivals are our heritage as well. They have significance for Christians because they concern the history of our salvation.

I don’t see anything wrong with making use of some Jewish customs, especially so as to impress on children the fact that Christianity and Judaism are deeply interconnected. But there must always be the clear instruction that the New Covenant in Christ fulfills and surpasses the Old Covenant and all its observances just as the real thing surpasses its images or shadows.

Whatever you might do, do with respect and without substituting their customs for our own beautiful practices.

Also, I fully endorse taking advantage of some of the traditional foods which the Jews prepare at this time!  Have at.

For those of you who might not know much about Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, let’s have a review.

This year, Hanukkah starts today, 1 December. Sometimes it is written with a “Ch”.  There will be variant spellings depending on who is doing the writing.  That first letter in the Hebrew word חנוכה involves a glottal fricative, which can be hard for English speakers.

Hanukkah commemorates the reclaiming of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt during the 2nd c. B.C.   The Temple had been violated by the invaders of the Seleucid Empire.  When the Jews under the Maccabees rededicated the Temple, they found just enough olive oil to light the Temple’s flame for only one day.  It burned for eight days, the length of time needed to prepare new oil for the Temple’s flame.  The events are in Maccabees 1 and 2.

On the first night of Hanukkah, when the first light is kindled, this is the prayer which is recited or sung:

1. 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.
2. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.
3. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.

Some Jews will also sing psalms and other hymns, presents are exchanged and children are encouraged also to perform works of charity.

As you might guess, there are special foods for Hanukkah.

Since the holiday concerns what happened with oil, some of them are fried.  You might be able to find latkes, fritters and doughnuts in your stores these days.

Cranach the Elder - Judith and HolofernesAnd because of the story of Judith and Holofernes there may be some cheese or other milk products involved.  Judith fed Holofernes salty cheese in order to make him very thirsty, thus provoking him to drink lots of wine.  The wine went to his head.  Judith thereafter removed said head from said Holofernes’ neck.  The connection: Judith is thought to have been connected to the Maccabees; her intervention parallels that of the Maccabees with the miracle of the oil, and thus she is also a figure revered at Hanukkah.

There are some great paintings of the scene of Judith sawing away at poor old Holofernes.  One of my favorites is the version by Artemisia.  She has a look of real satisfaction on her face as she hacks away.  I have included here, however, a less common depiction of the meal wherein Judith is setting Holofernes up for his demise with the meal of cheese and wine.  It is by Cranach the Elder.  A few other versions here.   But I digress.


Children also play with the famous little top called a “dreidel”.  The top, which sometimes the children make from clay (there is a famous song about that which I learned from a childhood friend), is decorated with the letters. Nun (נ), Gimel (ג), Hey (ה) and Shin (ש), and acronym for “A great miracle happened there”. Some driedels from the Holy Land have the last letter as Pe (פ) to make the acronym say “here” instead of “there”. To play, you spin the top and, depending on the letter that turns up, you get a little prize or perhaps nothing. There are variations, as you can imagine.

There are all sorts of symbolic meanings for every part of the dreidel, which developed over time, much in the same way that we developed symbolic meanings for all our vestments and gestures during Holy Mass, just to put a Catholic spin on it.

John 10:22, by the way, mentions Hanukkah. The Lord was in Jerusalem for the observance of the festival.

Ἐγένετο δὲ τὰ ἐγκαίνια ἐν τοῖς Ἱεροσολύμοις καὶ χειμὼν ἦν.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. samgr says:

    I’ve always wanted to put a Catholic spin on a dreidel. Now that you mention it, I have.

  2. Christopher Milton says:

    So, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, the books that tell the story behind Hanukkah, are excluded from the Jewish scripture? Anybody have an explanation?

  3. teomatteo says:

    Chris, didnt Luther leave them out for the same reason?…. for the life of me i dont know…

  4. rakesvines says:

    @Milton: Maccabees did not meet the criterion to belong to the Hebrew Scriptures:

    “The writing had to be composed in Hebrew. The only exceptions, which were written in Aramaic, were Daniel 2-7, writings attributed to Ezra (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26), who was recognized as the founding father of post-Exilic Judaism, and Jer. 10:11. Hebrew was the language of Sacred Scripture, Aramaic the language of common speech.
    The writing had to be sanctioned by usage in the Jewish community. The use of Esther at Purim made it possible for it to be included in the canon. Judith, without such support, was not acceptable.
    The writings had to contain one of the great religious themes of Judaism, such as election, or the covenant. By reclassifying the Song of Songs as an allegory, it was possible to see in this book an expression of covenantal love.
    The writing had to be composed before the time of Ezra, for it was popularly believed that inspiration had ceased then. Jonah was accepted because it used the name of an early prophet and dealt with events before the destruction of Nineveh, which occurred in 612 BCE. Daniel, a pseudonymous writing, had its setting in the Exile and therefore was accepted as an Exilic document. ” fromWiki

  5. Antony says:

    Chris/ Teo:

    I was wondering the same. Also, I thought Judith was axed by Luther…also for the same reason.

  6. There are four books with the title “Maccabees” or “Machabees”. The Church counts 1 and 2 Maccabees in the canon of Scripture. 3 and 4 are considered to be apocryphal.

  7. Aengus Oshaughnessy says:

    I love the paintings of Judith and Holofernes. That whole event has always been one of my favourite portions of the Bible–a tale filled with poetic justice, a suitably awful villain, and a thoroughly tough lady; truly, the stuff of legends.

  8. irishgirl says:

    Aengus Oshaughnessy-I couldn’t agree with you more! Way to go, Judith!

  9. Fr Martin Fox says:

    I would be happy to be invited to take part in a Hannukah observance, but as it is, I don’t have many Jewish friends and they are not nearby. When I was in college, several fraternity brothers were Jewish and I told them I’d be fascinated to visit their synagogue or take part in anything; but that drew an odd reaction. Eventually, one of them did invite me over to his house during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. I never went to synagogue with any of them, nor ever took part in Hannukah, let along the more solemn celebrations.

    One of my friends wasn’t terribly observant; but I think the larger explanation is that I was thinking like a Christian–we are supposed to share our faith and invite others; it comes more easily to us. But Jews see it differently, as I understand it. They don’t tend to invite folks as much, as they don’t seem to feel a mandate to make converts the way we do. (For that matter, we Catholics are somewhat that way; we have been more reserved about such things than our Protestant brethren.)

    One other suggestion, I’d add to those of our host: being respectful of Jewish customs means being aware that they don’t want their customs or holidays co-opted or Christianized. Growing up, I got the idea that Hannukah was a kind of “Jewish Christmas” and I think many treat it that way. That’s not how Jews see it; and I think it’s more respectful to let them have their holiday, as it is, rather than turn it into something it’s not. Of course, it may be that many Jewish parents with young children have contributed to this, dealing with the problem of the Christmas fun being had by Christian kids.

    Likewise, many Christians will host, or take part in, “Christian Seders” at Passover time. My understanding is that our Jewish cousins don’t appreciate that and I can’t blame them. How would we like to read about a “Jewish Mass”? And it’s not necessary. When I was in the seminary, the main synagogue downtown held a Seder every year to which the public was invited, precisely to learn about Passover. A group of us from the seminary went and it was very interesting; plus we got a tour of the beautiful synagogue. One thing we have in common with our Jewish cousins, of course, is that they reverence the Scriptures and that is moving to experience: their “ark” for the Torah is where our tabernacle is traditionally (and properly) placed.

  10. Pater OSB says:

    You can also enjoy a hit from the Macccabeats:

  11. Dave N. says:

    Just for some further clarification:
    1) The specific story of the miracle of the oil celebrated during Hanukkah is Tamudic, not scriptural (see Shabbat 21b).

    2) The “axing” of books by Luther is a common misconception, unfortunately still promulgated by many Catholics. (And thus a little embarrassing, imo). Luther moved the books for which he had no Hebrew original to a separate section in his German translation. The “leaving out” was a much later development.

    3) Many scholars associate the Encaenia mentioned in Jn. 10:22 with the dedication of the temple altar described in 2 Chr 7:9-10, which is in the 7th month (coinciding with Sukkot), not the ninth (i.e., Hanukkah). The theory is that Jesus, as a good Jew, would have fulfilled the obligation to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Sukkot, and there is no such obligation for Hanukkah in scripture, or anywhere else for that matter. By Egeria’s time (4th cen.) the Encaenia was a major Christian feast associated with the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchure and the finding of the True Cross, which coincide:

    “Item dies enceniarum appellantur, quando sancta ecclesia, quae in Golgotha est, quam Martyrium uocant, consecrata est Deo; sed et sancta ecclesia, quae est ad Anastase, id est iIl eo loco, ubi Dominus resurrexit post passionem, ea die et ipsa consecrata est Deo. Harum ergo ecclesiarum sanctarum encenia cum summo honore celebrantur quoniam crux Domini inventa est ipsa die.”

    This festival (which now survives only as the Triumph of the Cross, Sept 14) shows each of the three Israelite pilgrimage festivals being fulfilled by Christian counterparts:


    4) 3 Maccabees is canonical in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and 4 Maccabees in (I think) the Georgian Orthodox tradition.

  12. Jayna says:

    @Fr. Fox: I went to a Seder at my friend’s house one year. Great food. But no one told me I didn’t have to eat the parsley.

  13. Ceile De says:

    If they are Hebrew Catholics aren’t they free to observe all Jewish customs as well as Catholic oners?

  14. Tom in NY says:

    What’s old is what’s new. The Maccabee family were fighting for their (and it would become our) religious heritage against the “progressive” culture of the day, i. e. Hellenism, that particular Greek culture which Alexander had brought east. If the Temple had not been dedicated and Judaism preserved, what context would the Prophet of Nazareth use?
    Jamnia didn’t like Scripture written or preserved in Greek. That’s why it was not in the Tanakh. Thanks to rakesvines, supra.
    Hope you get foil-wrapped chocolate coins.
    Salutationes omnibus.

  15. Andrew says:

    If they are Hebrew Catholics aren’t they free to observe all Jewish customs as well as Catholic oners?
    One should not try to be both a Jew and a Christian or one might end up not being either one of the two.

  16. introibo says:

    Yes Andrew, dangerous territory. As Bob Sungenis (Bellarmine Theological Forum) cites the Council of Florence:
    It (the Church through the Council of Florence) firmly believes, professes, and teaches that the matter pertaining to the law of the Old Testament, of the Mosaic law, which are divided into ceremonies, sacred rites, sacrifices, and sacraments, because they were established to signify something in the future, although they were suited to the divine worship at that time, after our Lord’s coming had been signified by them, ceased, and the sacraments of the New Testament began; and that whoever, even after the passion, placed hope in these matters of the law and submitted himself to them as necessary for salvation, as if faith in Christ could not save without them, sinned mortally. Yet it does not deny that after the passion of Christ up to the promulgation of the Gospel they could have been observed until they were believed to be in no way necessary for salvation; but after the promulgation of the Gospel it asserts that they cannot be observed without the loss of eternal salvation. All, therefore, who after that time observe circumcision and the Sabbath and the other requirements of the law, it declares alien to the Christian faith and not in the least fit to participate in eternal salvation, unless someday they recover from these errors. (Denzinger 712)

  17. Lori Pieper says:

    For several years while I was growing up, my family held our version of the Passover Seder on Holy Thursday. It was actually my idea and I researched the rite. It was fascinating and great enriched my understanding of the history and theology behind the Last Supper and the Eucharist.

    A few years after that, the youth group in our parish held a similar Seder in the parish hall; this time we not only used the actual Jewish ritual books, but a Jewish guy from the local synagogue came and instructed us in the prayers and everything that accompanied the rite. So I’m sure that not all Jews would be opposed to this.

  18. dcs says:

    The irony is that Hanukkah (unlike Passover) is not really an important Jewish holiday. It has only become so because of Christmas.

    As far as the Last Supper is concerned, it is not at all clear that Our Lord celebrated a seder meal. I believe the Holy Father wrote in one of his books on the liturgy that the Last Supper was most likely a todah meal.

  19. JP says:

    Our son has ‘converted’ (reverted? Apostatized?) to Judaism. At some point we will probably find ourselves dealing with Hanukkah. Our son has been overseas so it hasn’t been any issue to this point. My daughters and I could, apparently, be considered Jews as I had a Jewish great-grandmother. But we have all been raised Catholic.

    Our son’s conversion has gotten me investigating more about Judaism, and what I’ve found has been fascinating.

    As for Hanukkah being “Jewish Christmas”, has anyone read “The Latke that Screamed” by Lemony Snickett?

  20. irishgirl says:

    Pater OSB-just watched ‘The Maccabeats’ video! That was fun!

  21. Hieronymus Illinensis says:

    But Dave N., Sukkot isn’t in winter.

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