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The Jewish festival of Hanukkah

Standing up for what is important, overcoming difficulty, light.

by Caroline Donne

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


Date varies from year to year - please check the REonline Festivals Calendar.


  • Standing up for what is important
  • Overcoming difficulty
  • Light

Preparation and materials

  • If possible, borrow a Hanukkah lamp (Hanukiyah) or find a picture of one. Your local RE Resource Centre may be able to help (details of your local RE Centre can be found on the RE Directory website:
  • Display a plate of doughnuts or traditional Jewish potato pancakes cooked in oil (latkes).


  1. Ask the students to imagine that something very special to them is deliberately broken or spoilt by someone. How would they feel?

    Explain that at this time of year, Jewish people celebrate a festival called Hanukkah. During the festival, they remember a story in which something precious and important to them was taken and spoilt, and how God helped them.
  2. Tell the story below:


    The story happened over 2000 years ago. For Jewish people, their most special place was the temple in Jerusalem. It was a holy place – they believed that they could meet with God there. But the temple was captured by the King of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes. He didn’t want the Jewish people to follow their own beliefs or to worship God in the way they wanted to. Instead, King Antiochus wanted them to obey him and to worship the Greek gods that he worshipped. He captured the temple, destroyed everything inside it and put up statues of Greek gods.

    Then a group of Jewish people decided that they would stand up against the king and defend what was important to them. They lived in caves in the hills near Jerusalem and from there they launched attacks on the armies of King Antiochus. Their leader was called Judas Maccabeus. People said he was brave, a clear thinker and someone who would not give up. This band of rebels (which also included Judas’ brothers) had a name: the Maccabees (or ‘hammers’).

    Eventually, the Maccabees managed to clear the temple in Jerusalem of their enemies, but they were left with the sad sight of the destruction that had been caused. The gates had been burned, bushes had started to grow inside and animals wandered through the ruins. So the Maccabees rebuilt the temple, and they announced a day when the temple would be open again and they could pray to God. It was a great day of singing and music and thanksgiving to God.

    One of the most important parts of the celebrations that day was to relight a huge candlestick with seven branches, called the Menorah, which was kept burning in the temple as a sign of God’s everlasting presence. The Menorah was fuelled with special oil, but when the people searched for the oil all they could find was one small jar, with only enough oil for a single night. They lit the Menorah, expecting the light to go out when the oil burned down but, instead, when they returned the next day, there was still some oil left over and the light continued to burn. The oil from the one small jar lasted for eight whole days until new oil supplies arrived. The Jewish people knew that a great miracle had happened on the site of their temple and that God had helped them in times of great danger and difficulty.

  3. Celebrations

    From that time on, Jewish people have celebrated the time when their vandalized and spoilt temple was rebuilt. They call the celebrations Hanukkah and they last for eight days, just like the oil did. It’s a festival that’s full of light. Each day they light an eight-branched lamp called a Hanukiyah to remind them of the story of the Maccabees and the miraculous supply of oil. They say special prayers and give thanks to God.

    Show pupils the Hanukiyah. Explain that there are eight individual lamps or candles and a servant candle (Shamash) with its own holder slightly apart from the eight branches. On the first evening of Hanukkah, the candle on the extreme right is lit using the servant candle. At the end of the evening, the two candles are extinguished. On the seven nights that follow, the next unlit candle along the row is lit first (using the servant candle) and then the candles from the previous nights are relit. Those who like numbers might like to calculate how many times candles are lit on the Hanukiyah over the eight nights (the answer is 44, i.e. 1+1, +1+2, +1+3, +1+4, and so on).

  4. Hanukkah is a time of family celebrations, too. Games are played and food that is cooked in oil is eaten. (Show the doughnuts and latkes. You may like to cut them into portions and distribute them after the assembly.) It’s a time of great hope. The story of the Maccabees helps Jewish people to face the future with courage, even when things are difficult.

Focus on the themes

Think about what is important. What would you be prepared to protect and stand up for? Your family, your friends, your home, your beliefs?

Time for reflection

Encourage the students to be still and to think or pray about the things they have heard. Light some candles as a visual focus. You could use some of these phrases to help.

God of all,
Thank you that we are free to follow our own beliefs.
We think of people in the world who are not free:
people who are hated or laughed at because of what they believe.
Help us to be ready to understand and listen to people we meet,
even if we do not agree with them.

Publication date: July 2013   (Vol.15 No.7)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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