ASK FATHER: Can Catholics observe Hannukah / Chanukah?

Hanukkah MenorahFrom 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 concrete goal surpasses its plans, 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, 24 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 in 139 BC.   The Temple had been violated by the invaders of the Seleucid Empire.  It is part of Talmudic tradition (not Scriptural) that 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, onward from 25 Kislev (the Jewish calendar month), the length of time needed to prepare new oil for the Temple’s flame.  The events are in Maccabees 1 and 2. They are also documented by the ancient historian Josephus.

This Jewish festival is a celebration of both a physical victory (the defeat of a much larger enemy) and a spiritual (victory again the integration of Hellenic elements into their religion).  I think those are the real “miracles” that observant Jews would celebrate, rather than the business about the oil, which seems to be a later tradition.

In any event, now the festival is celebrated also with the lighting of candles, one each night successively, on the candelabra called a “menorah”. PRayers are said or sung with the lighting of each candle. One candle, a Shamash, is placed higher or off to the side. It is used to light the other 8 candles. The menorah should be in a visible place, such as a window ledge.  Here are the prayers, which are beautiful.

“Baruch ata Ado-nai, Elo-heinu Melech ha’olam, Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah
Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to Kindle the Chanukah light.

Baruch ata Ado-nai, Elo-heinu Melech ha’olam, She’asah nisim la’avoseinu, bayamim ha’hem baz’man hazeh
Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who has wrought miracles for our forefathers, in those days at this season.

On the first night only
“Baruch ata Ado-nai, Elo-heinu Melech ha’olam, She’hecheyanu, vekiyemanu vehigi’anu laz’man hazeh”
Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

Then they sing:

“Ha’Neiros halalu anachnu madlikin al hanisim ve’al hanifla’os, ve’al hat’shu’os ve’al hamilchamos, sh’asisa la’avoseinu bayamim hahem baz’man hazeh, al yedei kohaneicha hakedoshim. Vechol sh’monas yemei Chanukah, haneiros halalu kodesh hem. Ve’ein lanu reshus le’hishtamesh ba’hem, eh’la lir’osam bilvad, ke’dei le’hodos u’lehalel leshimcha hagadol al nisecha ve’al nifle’osecha ve’al yeshu’oshecha.”

These lights we kindle upon the miracles, the wonders, the salvations, and the battles which you performed for our forefathers in those days at this season through Your holy priests. During all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, but to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations.

Ma’oz tzur yeshu’asi
Lecha na’eh leshabe’ach
Tikone bais tefilasi
Ve’sham todah nezabe’ach
Le’es Tachin Mabe’ach
Mitzar ham’nabe’ach
Az egmor beshir mizmor
Chanukas hamizbe’ach.
O mighty Rock of my salvation,
to praise You is a delight.
Restore my house of prayer
and there we will bring a thanksgiving offering.
When You will have prepared the slaughter
for the blaspheming foe,
Then I shall complete with a song of hymn
the dedication of the altar.

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

There are, of course, 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 HolofernesIncidentally, because Hanukkah celebrates the victory of a small force over a much larger force, the story of Judith and Holofernes came also to be associated with the festival.  Also, Judith is thought to have been connected to the Maccabees. Because of the story of Judith and Holofernes there may be some cheese or other milk products involved at Hanukkah.  Judith fed Holofernes salty cheese in order to make him very thirsty, thus leading him to drink lots of wine.  The wine went to his head.  Judith thereafter removed said head from the aforementioned Holofernes’ neck.

There are great paintings of the scene of Judith sawing away at 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.

By the way, I just saw a super new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City about Valentin de Bourgogne, very much a follower of Caravaggio and better than most of his followers.  In any event, they had his Judith (c. 1626-7)


With her upraised hand, pointed heavenward she is herein very much the femme forte, not to say femme fatale.  Her hands evoke Judith 16:6: “But the almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman, and hath slain him.”

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), an acronym for “A great miracle happened there”. Some dreidels 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.

In any event, while I don’t think we ought to have menorahs, I see no harm in enjoying some of things like latkes. We always give our own beautiful and grace-filled customs full support and primacy of place. But we should know what those other customs are and respect them.

And with that, on this Christmas Eve Day, the Vigil of the Birth of True Light into this darkened world, the ultimate festival of light, I wish everyone a happy and holy Christmas.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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12 Responses to ASK FATHER: Can Catholics observe Hannukah / Chanukah?

  1. VexillaRegis says:

    Merry Christmas! Gladelig Jul! God Jul! Hyvää Joulua!

  2. Phil_NL says:

    “Observe” is perhaps the wrong word, unless it’s used in the other meaning, namely to watch. Regarding religious holidays, ‘observing’ would suggest that one also takes on the obligations connected with the feast. I don’t know insofar any are connect with Hannukah, but many Jewish holidays have special rules that come along with them. Those are, thankfully I might add, not for us Catholics.

    I’d say the better word would be “celebrate”! Since we do share in the heritage, and the wonders God did to the Jewish people are truely God’s wonders, what would be more fitting? Especially as it coincides with our celebration of the birth of a Jewish boy, our Lord, all those years ago. Why not celebrate together with Jewish friends, neighbours? Join in the merriment and commemeration, say ‘amen’ to the prayers? Their can always be room for more festivities.

    Anyway, Midnight Mass in 2 hours here – Adeste Fidelis! And merry Christmas to all!

  3. FarmerBrawn says:

    I think we would be better off celebrating Catholic traditions than looking backwards or sideways at Judaism.

  4. Andrew says:

    St. Jerome’s letter 112 to St. Augustine, numbers 13 and 14.

  5. Scout says:

    This year, at the conclusion of his homily at Christmas Eve Mass, the deacon at our local parish wished everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah. Seemed strange and out of place.

  6. david s says:

    A very blessed Christmas to all! Venite, adoremus Dominum!

    With regard to the post, it occurs to me today to wonder again about the connection between the Jewish 8-day festivals and the roots of the Christian custom (now much reduced) of keeping octaves of major festivals. In this case, it seems a nice coincidence that the Christmas Octave and Hannukah almost completely overlap this year.

  7. DanielV says:

    So here is an image of then Cardinal Bergolio celebrating with his Jewish friends in the lighting of a Hannukah menorah:

    Note carefully that he is lighting the shamash (the candle used to light the actual Hanukkah candles) and not the Hanukkah candles themselves.

    I think that in this way, the present Holy Father showed profound fidelity and obedience to Catholic canon law and theology, while also showing profound respect for Jewish canon law and theology [short answer on all accounts: it’s complicated], all while still celebrating with them in the joy of all that this holiday represents (and that Father Z explained really well). To my eyes, at least, it’s just beautiful.

    Merry Christmas, and חג שמח!

  8. Semper Gumby says:

    Great post, thanks Fr. Z. A Merry and blessed Christmas to all.


  10. Mariana2 says:

    God Jul, dear Father!

  11. Kerry says:

    The head held by a smiling Judith in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting resembles one Henry, the Eighth of that name. Does it not?

  12. dallenl says:

    Since our faith is directly descended from the Jewish faith, I fail to see why the question should even be asked. Same thing goes for Purim and a few others I would also add that observance of Hunakkah is also in the finest secular Libertarian tradition as it celebrates the right of a people to be free.

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