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published: 3/17/04
updated: 1/8/13

Hanukkah (Chanukah): Festival of Lights




What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah Symbol

Hanukkah dreidels
Dreidels.

LED mini-menorah
New twist on tradition: LED mini-menorah. Photo: Windell H. Oskay.

Hanukkah Menorah
Menorah on 7th night. Photo: Ron Almog.

Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah) is probably the Jewish holiday with which non-Jews are most familiar, due to its proximity to Christmas. It is not, however, the "Jewish Christmas" - it historically predates Christmas and is a very different celebration.

Dates of Hanukkah

As with all Jewish holidays, Hanukkah begins at sundown the night before the date listed:

  • Nov. 27-Dec. 5, 2013
  • Dec. 16-24, 2014
  • Dec. 6-14, 2015
  • Dec. 24-Jan. 1, 2016




History of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is one of the few Jewish holidays that is not instituted in the Torah. It commemorates a post-biblical event: the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek rulers of Jerusalem and the subsequent rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE. It also celebrates a miracle that accompanied this event: When the temple was rededicated, God miraculously made the one day's worth of oil burn brightly for eight days.

By the time of the Talmud (c. 500 CE), the political situation had changed and the tale of the Maccabees was no longer as popular. It seems the victorious Maccabees had become almost as oppressive as the previous regime and, even worse, their descendents allied themselves with the Romans. So in their discussion of Hanukkah the rabbis focused more on the legend of the miraculous oil than on the victory of the Maccabees.

For most of its history, Hanukkah has been a rather minor holiday. But in the late 19th century it began to gain popularity and today it is one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays (neck-and-neck with Passover, according to one source {1}).

This change seems to be due in part to the increasing popularity of Christmas gift-giving in the late 19th century, and the corresponding wish to offer an alternative, especially for children, that maintains Jewish identity and avoids assimilation. In addition, the Zionist movement, which arose in the late 19th century, found inspiration in the story of the Maccabees.

Hanukkah Observance

Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev (mid- to late-December). Since Hanukkah falls four days before the new moon (the darkest night of the month) and close to the winter solstice (the longest night of the year), it seems only natural that a key element of this holiday is light. In fact, one of its other names is the "Feast of Lights" (along with "Feast of Dedication" and "Feast of the Maccabees").

The only essential ritual of Hanukkah is the lighting of candles. The Hanukkah candles are held in a chanukkiah, a candelabra that holds nine candles. (The chanukkiah is different from a menorah, which is a candelabra that holds seven candles and is pictured on the official emblem of the State of Israel.) The candle (shammash) in the middle of the chanukkiah is used to light the others.

One candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, two are lit on the second, and so on, until all eight are lit on the eighth night. The candles are added from the right, but lit beginning with the first one on the left (representing the current night). During or after the lighting of the candles, these blessings are recited:

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Universal Presence, Who sanctifies us with the mitzvot and gives us this path of kindling the light of Hanukkah.

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Universal Presence, Who worked miracles for our ancestors in ancient days at this time.

On the first night of Hanukkah, a special blessing is added:

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Universal Presence, Who keeps us in Life always, Who supports the unfolding of our uniqueness, and Who brings us to this very moment for blessing.

Once they are lit, the candles may not be used for any other purpose, such as lighting other candles or reading by, and they must burn for at least a half an hour. The chanukkiah should be placed in a window to proclaim the miracle it represents (except in times of persecution, when to do so could endanger the family's lives).

In addition to the lighting of the candles, many other Hanukkah traditions have developed over the years. One favorite is eating fried foods in recognition of the miraculous oil. A customary Hanukkah treat that developed in Eastern Europe is the latke, a potato pancake fried in oil and served with applesauce or sour cream. Jews in Israel enjoy a sufganiot, a kind of jelly donut.

Another popular Hanukkah tradition is the game of "spin the dreidel." A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay, and shin drawn on each side. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, "A great miracle happened there," and they also stand for Yiddish words that represent the rules of the game: nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put).

Each player begins with an equal amount of nuts, pennies, M&Ms, or other small pieces, then the players take turns spinning the dreidel. Before each spin, each person puts one piece into the pot. If the spin lands on nun, nothing happens. If it lands on gimel (one Jewish author knows this as "gimme!"), the player collects all the pieces and everyone antes up again. A result of hay means the player takes half the pieces in the pot, and shin requires the player to put one more piece in the pot.

The origin of the dreidel game is not clear. One theory is that it was used as as protection in times of persecution: to avoid being caught studying the Torah, Jews would quickly pull out the dreidels and pretend they were gambling.

A more recent tradition associated with Hanukkah is gift-giving, which by all accounts derives directly from Hanukkah's proximity to Christmas. Many Jewish families have adopted the tradition of giving small gifts to their children to alleviate jealousy of non-Jewish friends who celebrate Christmas. Gifts are not exchanged with anyone else, however, and Hanukkah gifts generally tend to be smaller than their Christmas counterparts.




References

  1. Ted Falcon, Judaism for Dummies, p. 258.
  2. Chanukah - Judaism 101
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