Hanukkah is one of the best known Jewish holidays because of its proximity to Christmas and as a result, many confuse it as being the Jewish Christmas because the Jewish people adopt gift-giving and decorating with the holiday. Hanukkah, however, is a festival, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion.
During Hanukkah, a miracle is celebrated! Upon Judah Maccabee’s defeat of the Syrians, the Second Temple in Judea was rebuilt and during the dedication, a menorah was to be lit, its candles burning every night but there was only oil enough in the temple to keep the candles lit for just one night, yet they stayed lit for 8-nights and these 8-nights are celebrated by Jewish people every years as the miracle of Hanukkah.
Now Christmas, which we know is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, (who Christians believe is the son of God), is a miracle as well, the two holidays share nothing in common except for the time of year they fall.
The Story Hanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great, the King of Macedonia, a state in northern ancient Greece. Alexander, who was tutored by Aristotle who, was undefeated in battle and is considered one of history’s most successful commanders. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks.
But then something changed…
More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region and he began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar.
Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.
The holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: The Jewish people do not glorify war.
Chanukkah is not a very important religious holiday. The holiday’s religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu’ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and you won’t find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim (which has been referred to as the Jewish equivalent of Halloween because of the use of costumes).
Chanukkah is not even mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of Maccabees, which most Jewish people do not even accept as scripture.
The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or sometimes called a chanukkiah) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three blessings are recited: l’hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking G-d for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking G-d for allowing us to reach this time of year).
After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. Candles can be lit any time after dark but before midnight. The candles are normally allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour, but if necessary they can be blown out at any time after that 1/2 hour. On Shabbat, Chanukkah candles are normally lit before the Shabbat candles, but may be lit any time before candlelighting time (18 minutes before sunset). Candles cannot be blown out on Shabbat (it’s a violation of the sabbath rule against igniting or extinguishing a flame).
Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first).
On the eighth night, all nine candles (the 8 Chanukkah candles and the shammus) are lit.
On nights after the first, only the first two blessings are recited; the third blessing, she-hekhianu is only recited on the first night of holidays.
So why is there a shammus candle which lights all the other candles, you ask? The Chanukkah candles are for pleasure only; we are not allowed to use them for any productive purpose. We keep an extra one around (the shammus), so that if we need to do something useful with a candle, we don’t accidentally use the Chanukkah candles. The shammus candle is at a different height so that it is easily identified as the shammus. It is traditional to eat fried foods on Chanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday.
Food: Among Ashkenazic Jews, this usually includes latkes – potato pancakes made up of shredded potato, onion, egg to hold it together and some spices, all fried in oil – (pronounced “lot-kuhs” or “lot-keys”).
Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where there are a lot of Jewish children who have contact with Christians, as a way of dealing with our children’s jealousy of their Christian friends. It is extremely unusual for Jews to give Chanukkah gifts to anyone other than their own young children. The only traditional gift of the holiday is “gelt,” small amounts of money (chocolate money wrapped in foil if you are lucky).
Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins (gelt). The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus’ oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight. A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham”, a great miracle happened there, referring to the miracle of the oil. The letters also stand for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which are the rules of the game! There are some variations in the way people play the game, but the way I learned it, everyone puts in one coin. A person spins the dreidel. If it lands on Nun, nothing happens; on Gimel, you get the whole pot; on Hei, you get half of the pot; and on Shin, you put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one in. Keep playing until one person has everything. Then redivide it, because nobody likes a poor winner.
Festival of lights… Maybe festival of candles or festival of oil…
Hanukkah. Chanukah. Chanuka. Hanuka.
Spell it as you wish.