Hanukkah: The Jewish festival of lights

Hanukkah is actually a fairly minor holiday on the landscape of Jewish holidays, but because it has the fortune to occur close to the decidedly un-Jewish holiday of Christmas it has gained great prominence and popularity among Jews in the Western world. Since the name of the actual holiday is translated from Hebrew, it has several different spellings in English, including Chanukah, Hanukah and Hanukka.


In 167 B.C., Syrian troops occupied Palestine. Syria's emperor decided that he wanted to destroy Judaism. Emperor Antiochus decreed that to be Jewish was a capital offense. In one very public display, his soldiers captured two Jewish mothers who had secretly circumcised their infant sons. The women were paraded through the streets of Jerusalem and then executed along with their babies. A Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons raised an insurgency against Antiochus. One of Mattathias' sons, Judas Maccabaeus, became the general of the small group of insurgents. It took three years of guerrilla warfare for the revolutionaries to oust the Syrian troops from Palestine. The group, known as Maccabees or Hasmoneans, rushed to regain control of the holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem only to find that it had been defiled by the Syrians.

Legend Of The Miracle

During the military occupation, Antiochus' soldiers had sacrificed swine in the Temple among other acts repugnant to Jews. When the Maccabees regained power, they purified the Temple and found only one uncontaminated cruse of olive oil, needed to burn in the temple candelabra. It would take eight days to prepare more ritual oil, yet there was enough for only one day. And this became the central "miracle" story of the Hanukkah holiday: the single day's worth of oil burned for eight days.

The Menorah

Hence, Jews celebrate Hannukah for eight days, lighting one candle each night, until on the final night there are eight tiny flames dancing atop the Menorah, the special Hanukkah candelabra. The eight candles must be level with one another. There is a ninth candle, called the "shamash." It may be placed higher or lower than the eight other candles. On the first night, the shamash is lit and it is used to light one candle. On the second night, it lights two, and so on. Jews place the Menorah near the window so passers-by can see it, thereby fulfilling the rabbinic dictum of publicizing the miracle.

The Dreidel

There is an official game of Hanukkah: spinning the dreidel, a four-sided top. The four sides represent the saying "Nase Gadol Haya Shom" ("a big miracle happened there"), so each side has a letter: nun, gimmel, hay and shin. Everyone antes into the pot. Bets are placed about which letter will be facing up when the dreidel stops spinning and drops.

N: No one wins
G: The spinner takes the pot
H: Spinner gets half the pot
S: Spinner puts another one into the pot

Hanukkah Food

Latkes, also known as potato pancakes, are made of shredded potatoes, mixed with chopped onions and fried in oil. It is traditional to serve them with applesauce or with sugar on top. In Israel, fried jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot are also popular Hanukkah fare.

Source: Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

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