Basic Background on Hanukkah

For most of my childhood, I believed that Hanukkah was “Jewish Christmas” and basically the most important Jewish holiday, which is a pretty embarrassing admission. So many writers, retailers, and celebrities put such emphasis on the holiday that I just assumed it had to be important. And, while it does have a historical and slight religious significance, it’s really not that religiously important (It’s not even part of scripture!). So, now that I’ve given you some fun links about Hanukkah on this post, I’m going to share some more concrete information. If you have any corrections or additions, please add them! I’m always interested in furthering my knowledge and passing it on correct information.

Hanukkah, The Festival of Lights/The Festival of Rededication

The Historical Significance

Hanukkah is an eight-day festival meant to commemorate a minor miracle that occurred after Jewish nationalists the Maccabees recaptured their Temple (their central place of worship) from the ruling Seleucids in the 2nd century BCE. At this time, Jerusalem was ruled by Antiochus IV, variously known as The Gods’ Beloved or The Madman. King Antiochus IV wanted the Jews to adopt Hellenistic culture and give all the funds they raised for their religion and people to fund a war against Egypt. He was able to successfully destroy the Jews’ Temple, kill a large number of the Jewish population, and scatter rebels before they came together under a priest named Mattathias and his sons the Maccabees. These were the same Maccabees who later rebuilt the Temple, re-gathered the Jews, and reformed their society – for a time, at least.

However, the menorah is supposed to burn every night in the Temple, but, after the Seleucids’ occupation, there was very little purified oil for the purpose. Nevertheless, the priests lit the menorah with the oil they had left (which should have only lasted one night). To their surprise, it lasted eight nights, which gave the priests enough time to make more purified oil. The Jews believed this was a sign from God that He was once again taking them under his protection and so, in memory of this, Jewish priests declared these eight days a time of thanksgiving and rededication of the faith.

The Religious Significance

Despite this dramatic tale, Hanukkah is not a very important religious holiday. Other holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover (which I wrote about a little here) are more significant. And, as I mentioned earlier, the story of Hanukkah doesn’t even occur in scripture. Rather, it’s in the Book of Maccabees, which is not considered scripture.

So why is it so well known (at least in America)? Simply because it’s generally pretty close to Christmas. Misunderstanding of the holiday by non-Jews led to a rise in secular decorations and toys while a desire to ameliorate feelings of jealousy and ostracism in children expanded the celebration. So, while it may not have huge religious significance, it can still be very important to some families.

Traditions and Facts

Hanukkah occurs on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. The Jewish calendar does not correspond exactly with the Roman one, so that’s why the dates seem to change every year. It lasts for eight days beginning on sunset of the first day and ending at sunset of the eighth. This year, Hanukkah is December 6 through December 14.

Hanukkah can be spelled many different ways, and they’re all considered correct. The reason is that the word has been transliterated from Hebrew and the Roman alphabet and English sounds don’t correspond exactly. So, while I have settled on “Hanukkah,” it’s just as likely to see “Chanukah,” “Channukah,” “Hannukkah,” etc. Just follow what your Jewish friends or acquaintances do. They would know best.

The most important part of Hanukkah is lighting the candles on the menorah, a candelabra that holds nine candles. Eight of these candles represent the eight days of Hanukkah and are at the same height. The ninth, the shamash candle, is in the middle and usually higher than the others. This candle is used to light the other candles (from newest to oldest) and is especially important on Shabat when Jews can’t light or extinguish a candle. The candles are lit after sunset and before midnight and are supposed to burn for at least 30 minutes.

On the first night, Jews says three blessings when lighting the candle: a general prayer over the candles (l’hadlik neir), a prayer thanking God for performing earlier miracles (she’asah nisim), and a prayer thanking God for allowing people to make it to this time of the year again (she-hekhianu). People will also sing Hanukkah hymns and hang around the menorah talking, playing games, and eating.

Traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in memory of the miracle of the oil. The most well known are latke, potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, fried donuts. Matzo ball soup, though a common Jewish dish, is not significant to Hanukkah.

Some families play with a dreidel, which is a square top with Hebrew letters on it. The letters are nun, gimel, hei, and shin, and stand for the phrase nes gadol hayah sham, “a great miracle happened here.” People will then play a kind of gambling game with coins, pennies, or candy in which one person needs to collect everything in the pot. It’s believed to have originated in the Seleucid era when studying the Torah was forbidden, so they did so by playing dreidel games.

Despite what many of us have been taught to believe, gift giving is not very important. In fact, the only real gifts people give are gelt, which are small amounts of money given to children. Children are then encouraged to give at least a portion of this money to charity, as increased charity is also important. It’s very unlikely that people give gifts outside of their family.

To learn a bit more, check out my sources here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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