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Hanukkah 101: Celebrating the Festival of Lights

By: Ellen Lampe


The holiday season is upon us – the last months of the year are full of rich traditions from different religions and cultures. One of the oldest religions in the world, Judaism, brings with it one of the season’s brightest traditions – Hanukkah, also called Chanukah or the Festival of Lights.

The word Hanukkah originates from the Hebrew language. The tricky, imprecise translation of the word from Hebrew to English has caused various spellings and pronunciations. The “ch” and “h” sounds are the closest the English language gets to mirroring the Hebrew pronunciation; therefore, both Chanukah and Hanukkah are widely accepted. For the sake of fluidity in this article, we’ll use Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is observed for eight days, the dates of which vary each year. The holiday begins on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which can occur any time from late November to late December. This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown on Tuesday, Dec. 12 and lasts until sundown on Wednesday, Dec. 20.

The eight days of Hanukkah serve as a commemoration of a prominent miracle that shaped Jewish history. Worship services, passage readings and songs are performed throughout the week, and gifts are often given. The holiday also is celebrated through unique foods, games and traditions.

History behind Hanukkah

Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, marks the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which is said to have happened after a Jewish army successfully revolted against its Greek-Syrian oppressors in second century B.C.

According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s foundational texts, the Jews who took part in the rededication of the Second Temple could find only enough oil to keep the temple menorah’s candles burning for one day, but the lamp continued to burn for seven more days, leaving them enough time to find a fresh supply – an event that was declared a miracle. Those eight days are referred to as the eight miracle days, now remembered annually during Hanukkah.

Rabbi Avi Rubenfeld, with Chabad of Chesterfield, said oil is very special within the Jewish community. “The oil is symbolic of the soul. If you mix oil with water, it doesn’t dilute. It stays pure, much like the soul.”

Hanukkah menorah

Did you know there are multiple kinds of menorahs? The original menorah, the gold lamp used in the ancient temple in Jerusalem, is a candelabrum with seven candleholders. It is an instrumental part of the miracle of the oil and is now the official symbol of Judaism as well as an emblem of Israel.

The candelabrum used during Hanukkah isn’t the same as the original menorah, though some people mistake it as such. There is a special type of menorah used during Hanukkah, called a Hanukkiah or a Hanukkah menorah – a nine-branched candlestick, as opposed to seven. Eight of the arms on the Hanukkiah hold candles representing the eight days of Hanukkah, and the ninth arm holds the candle that is used to light the others. Prayers and songs are recited during each new lighting of the Hanukkiah.

“Each night, we light a candle to make each day brighter than the last,” Rabbi Avi explained.

The world’s largest Hanukkiah is a gold-colored structure that stands 32-feet high. It can be found during the Festival of Lights in New York City’s Central Park.

Hanukkah cuisine

In honor of the everlasting oil, the most popular way to prepare Hanukkah dishes is to fry them in – you guessed it – oil. Two culinary mainstays are potato pancakes known as latkes, served with applesauce and sour cream, and jelly doughnuts known as sufganiyot.

Another traditional Hanukkah treat are small, chocolate coins. These edible coins are made to be a fun version of gelt, the Yiddish word for money. Gelt was traditionally given to teachers as a gift, donated to charity or used as a reward for winning dreidel games.

Rabbi Avi said one important foundation of Hanukkah is education. Jewish people are taught to give a 10th of what they are given to charity, and gelt is a way of teaching this virtue to children. “What the gelt goes back to is giving your children money, and teaching them to give part of that to charity. It is so central to who we are. That’s the real meaning behind Hanukkah.”

The dreidel

The dreidel game originated during a time of religious oppression in which the ancient Greeks outlawed the studying of the Torah. Jewish children eager to learn risked their lives by continuing to study the Torah. If authorities came around, the children would quickly hide their texts and use the dreidel game as a cover. Now, the dreidel is a symbol of bravery and dedication to Judaism.

“We play the dreidel game to commemorate the children who were willing to risk their lives to study,” Rabbi Avi said.

The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with different Hebrew letters on each side: nun, gimel, hey and shin. In Hebrew, the letters form the initials of the message, “A great miracle happened there,” referring to Hanukkah’s everlasting oil.

Here’s how to play: Players each start out with the same amount of real or candy money. Throughout the game, they lose or gain currency depending on what letter they spin. Nun, “nothing,” means nothing happens. Gimel, “all,” means take everything in the pot. Hey, “half,” means take half of the pot. Shin, “put in,” means put one coin in the pot.

This Hanukkah season, why not gather friends around the dreidel and give it a spin?

Visit chabad.com for more resources on Hanukkah and events happening near you.

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