As the holiday season gets underway, all Chanukkah means to some of us is that there will be blue decorations alongside the red and green ones at the store. This year we asked for the Messianic Jewish perspective on the festival that continues to be so mysterious to the rest of us.
As the holiday season gets underway, all Chanukkah means to some of us is that there will be blue decorations alongside the red and green ones at the store. This year we asked for the Messianic Jewish perspective on the festival that continues to be so mysterious to the rest of us. Messianic Jews are Jewish people who accept Yeshua (Jesus) but continue practicing the Jewish way of life. Below, Rabbi Jamie Cowen from Tikvat Israel, a Messianic temple located in the Fan, explains his take on Chanukkah.
How does one become a Messianic Rabbi?
There are a few Messianic Jewish seminaries now in the US. I attended one of those seminaries for 2 1/2 years and received a Master’s in Jewish Studies from the Joseph Rabinowitz School of Theology — at the time known as the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute and Graduate School of Theology. There are two umbrella Messianic Jewish organizations, one of which is the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. I was ordained (received smicha) through this institution after meeting its requirements and have been serving as Rabbi of Tikvat Israel since 1990.
What does Chanukkah mean to you?
Chanukkah is the Feast of Dedication. Traditionally, it’s considered a minor feast in Judaism. However, in the Western World and especially the US where Christmas is so significant, the Jewish community, in order to compete, has elevated the status of the holiday. It celebrates the defeat of the Greeks by Jewish rebels in the 160′s BCE. The Greeks, who controlled much of the Middle East, had attempted to stamp out Jewish practices. In response, a group of observant Jewish priests rose in rebellion, ultimately overthrowing Greek rule and establishing an independent Jewish nation for the first time in 400 years. The name Chanukkah comes from the retaking of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem and cleansing it from Greek idols. For me, Chanukkah represents freedom to practice the Jewish faith and victory over our enemies.
How is Chanukkah celebrated in your congregation?
Because we’re Messianic, we do things a little differently. As you know, a special menorah is used for Chanukkah called the Chanukkiah, which is essentially a nine-stick candelabra as opposed to the traditional one of 7. There are eight candle holders representing the eight days that oil found in the Temple lasted during the retaking of the Temple. The final holder is called the shamash, meaning servant candle. That candle is traditionally lit first and is used to light the other candles during the 8-day holiday. We make the connection that Yeshua (Jesus) is the servant candle. He then lights our candles and enables us to be lights to the world. This connection is not a substitute for the traditional meaning of the days, but is added to it.
We usually have a Chanukkah party on the 1st night, which we do this year on Wednesday, December 1. Everyone is to bring their own Chanukkiah and light them together as I give the explanations above. Then we usually have entertainment and games for the kids and special Chanukkah delicacies for everyone.
Is Chanukkah celebrated in conjunction with, or in lieu of, Christmas?
We celebrate Chanukkah in lieu of Christmas. We don’t celebrate Christmas. Some families who are mixed might do so, although we actually discourage it. However, we never speak against Christmas nor do we discourage families from celebrating it with extended families where there are Christians in the extended family. It’s just not a Jewish holiday.
(To learn more about Chanukkah — which begins today — check out our feature from last year, Put on your yarmulke – it’s time to ask a Jew about Chanukah!)