Hanukkah is one of the most important holidays for the Jewish. Celebrated during wintertime, Chanukah, which literally translates to “festival of lights”, is celebrated as a re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its destruction by the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE.
The 8-day celebration falls on December 12-December 20 this year. The nightly celebration is marked by “menorah” lighting, special prayers, and fried foods.
During the second century BCE, Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) ruled over the Holy Land. They tried to force Israelis to accept their culture and beliefs. However, the Jews stayed true to their belief in G-d and mitzvah observance.
Led by Judah and Maccabee, a group of faithful Jews defeated the Greek armies and drove them off the Holy Land, successfully reclaiming what’s theirs and rededicated the Temple of Jerusalem to the service of G-d.
When they lit the Temple’s Menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum), they found a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, when they lit the menorah, the supposed one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days.
In commemoration of these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah.
The Eight-Day Festival
At the heart of Hanukkah is the nightly menorah lighting. It holds nine flames, one of which is the “shamash” (attendant) which is used to light the eight other flames. One candle is lit each night and by the end of the festival, all 8 lights are kindled.
Before the lighting, special blessings are either recited or sung in a traditional melody. Traditional songs are sung afterward.
Daily prayers are made which includes the special Hallel, the V’Al HaNissim, and in the Grace After Meals, to offer praise and thanksgiving to G‑d.
It is customary to eat foods fried in oil for this festival since the Chanukah miracle involved oil. Eastern-Europeans partake of the classic potato “latke” that is commonly garnished with applesauce or sour cream. The all time Israeli favorite “sufganiyah” (doughnut filled jelly filling) is also a staple in Hanukkah feasts.
Chanukah Game: Dreidel
Dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with the Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hei, and shin. It’s an acronym that stands for nes gadol hayah sham meaning “a great miracle happened there”. This customary game is played for pot of coins, nuts, etc.
Gifts during this eight-day long festival are given great importance. Gifts of money are often given to children, giving them the opportunity to give tzedakah (charity). This has also spawned the phenomenon of foil-covered “chocolate gelt.”