What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday that starts in the twenty-fifth of the Hebrew month of Kislev. In the Gregorian calendar, it falls out in November/December. Hanukkah is a commemoration of the miracle that happened to the Jews when they came to relight the Candelabra in the Temple. They had driven the mighty Seleucids from the land who had threatened their very existence. This in itself was a miracle as the number of Jews was extremely small compared to the mighty Seleucid army. When they defeated the Seleucids they regained religious freedom. One of the first acts that they did was to rededicate the Temple. When they came to light the Candelabra in the Temple (Menorah) they found only one jar of oil left. The oil should have lasted for a day but miraculously lasted eight days. To commemorate this miracle, the Sages established the festival of Hanukkah. Each night of Hanukkah a Hanukkiah (also known as Menorah), a special candelabra, is lit.
What is the source for the festival of Hanukkah?
The external (meaning not included in the Bible) Books of Maccabees documents the events of the period.
What are the practices of the festival of Hanukkah?
- On each night of the festival the Hanukkiah is lit. On the first night, one candle is lit, on the second, two and so on, until the eighth night when all eight are lit. The Hanukkiah has nine branches, due to one candle serving as the lighter of the other candles. The Hanukkiah is different to the candelabra of the Temple because the one in the Temple had only eight branches.
- Additional prayers of thanks-giving are recited.
- It is customary to eat oily foods to commemorate the miracle of the oil. Potato pancakes known as latkes and doughnuts known as sufganiyot are popular options.
- A special game called Dreidel is played. It consists of a four-sided spinning-top with four Hebrew letters, nun, gimmel, hay and shin (or pey in Israel). These four letters are the initials of the Hebrew phrase, "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham", meaning, " A Great Miracle Happened There". In Israel the Hebrew letter shin is replaced by pey and the phrase is changed accordingly, " Nes Gadol Hayah Poh", meaning, "A Great Miracle Happened Here". This change refers to the fact that the miraculous story happened in Israel.
- It is customary to give gifts on Hanukkah. The original custom was to give money to children on Hanukkah, to encourage them to give charity and encourage them to learn but evolved into gifts over the years.