Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday. It is observed for eight nights and days that begin on the 25th of the month of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar (or around late November to late December in the more familiar Gregorian calendar).
Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew. It is thus named as it celebrates the recovery of Jerusalem and the subsequent re-dedication of the Second Temple at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire during the 2nd century BCE
“Hanukkah” is spelled in other forms: “Chanukkah,” “Hanukah,” “Hanuka,” and “Chanuka.” It is also known as “The Festival of Lights” (Hag Ha’urim), as the holiday is celebrated with the lighting of the menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum.
Although Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday in strictly religious terms, it came to be one of the most popular and widely celebrated holidays. It has become a major cultural significance especially among secular Jews, because it occurs around the same time as Christmas. Due to this, Hanukkah is sometimes called the “Jewish Christmas,” albeit quite erroneously.
Origins of Hanukkah
According to the I Maccabees on the Book of Maccabees, the origins of Hanukkah began in 165 BCE when Judas Maccabeus celebrated his victory over Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the king of the Seleucid Empire who had invaded Judea, attempted to Hellenize the Jews and profaned the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Following his three-year struggle against Antiochus, Judas Maccabeus ordered the cleansing and purifying of the Temple. Following the cleansing and purifying, a new altar was installed there. Judas established the 25th of Kislev as the day of the celebration of the restored Temple. He proclaimed that the Hanukkah should be celebrated every year, for eight days beginning on that date.
In II Maccabees the Hanukkah is compared to the festivities of Sukkot, also known as the Feast of the Tabernacle, where the Jews were unable to celebrate during Antiochus’ rule. Thus, Hanukkah came as a celebration of the dedication, as the word itself implies.
How is Hanukkah celebrated?
At the heart of the Hanukkah festival is the lighting of the menorah. As defined earlier, the menorah (also known as hanukkiah) is a nine-branched candelabrum. Eight of the nine branches hold lights, which are either candles or oil lamps, that represent the eight nights of the holiday. One more branch is lit than the previous night, until on the final night of the holiday all of the eight branches are lit. The ninth branch, called shamash (literally meaning “sexton,” “attendant,” or “servant” in Hebrew) is used to kindle the other eight.
Friday nights, however, present a problem. Since candles could not be lit on the Shabbat day itself, care must be taken to light the menorah before the Shabbat candles are lit, and the next evening the menorah will be kindled only after the end of Shabbat.
In modern Israel, Hanukkah may be a minor religious observance but it is held as a national holiday. As typical of any holiday, schools are closed. Schoolchildren stage plays, sing holiday hymns, and hold parties. But unlike on other Jewish holidays, work is not forbidden on Hanukkah. Observant Jews go to work as usual but may leave early for home in order to light menorahs at nightfall.
Menorahs are lit in every household; many homes display their menorahs on the windowsill to be seen from the outside. Menorahs are also lit in synagogues.
There are also huge menorahs that are lit to accompany public events during one of the Hanukkah evenings. On those events, invited dignitaries are honored to lead the public menorah lighting ceremonies, which are attended by hundreds and thousands of people. You can see those jumbo-sized menorahs that crop up anywhere in Israel – in front of the city halls and legislative buildings, parks, malls, and any other public places. Check out the instance of a public menorah lighting in Safed.
One of Hanukkah’s highlights is the annual torch relay from Modi to Jerusalem. Runners carry torches through the streets until the last torchbearer arrives at the Western Wall, where the last remnants of the Second Temple lie. The final torchbearer hands the torch to the chief rabbi, who then uses it to light the first candle of the giant public menorah.
Reading the Scriptures, recitation of the Psalms, alms-giving, and singing special hymns are also some of the traditional activities during Hanukkah. Along with the daily prayers are giving thanks to God for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few… the wicked into the hands of the righteous.”
Those in the know will immediately associate Hanukkah with greasy foods. So what is the connection between those foods and Hanukkah?
This custom of eating oily foods is a way of commemorating the miracle of the flask of oil that kept the menorah at the Second Temple alight for eight days.
Olive oil is usually used for frying and baking food. Among the traditional Hanukkah foods is latke, potato pancakes that are usually common in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. They are usually garnished with sour cream or applesauce. Sephardic Jews, on the other hand, usually serve fritas de prasa, a dish similar to latke.
However, the most popular Hanukkah fare is sufganiyah (plural: sufganiyot), a round doughnut traditionally filled with jelly or custard and sprinkled with powdered sugar. These days, however, sufganiyot come in a variety of fillings, including vanilla cream, chocolate cream, caramel, coffee cream, and a lot others.
Gelt is Yiddish for “money” – so traditionally, Hanukkah gelt refers to money given as presents for the children during Hanukkah. The amount is usually in small coins, although doting parents, grandparents or relatives may give larger sums. This tradition dates back to a long-standing Eastern European custom where children presented their teachers with a small sum of money as a gesture of gratitude.
This tradition has somewhat become commercialized, as it has spawned the phenomenon of giving Hanukkah gelt chocolate “coins” – chocolate discs wrapped in gold-colored foil. The tradition of giving Hanukkah gelt surely brings the holiday excitement, especially among children. The coins are also common items in the game of dreidel.
On Hanukkah, it is customary for the kids to play a game of dreidel, a four-sided spinning top. The sides are imprinted with Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei, and shin – an abbreviation of the words “Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” which means “a great miracle happened there.” Dreidel is usually played for a pot of coins, nuts or other items, which are won or lost depending on which letter the dreidel lands when it is spun.