Hanukkah, meaning “dedication,” is a Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C. The eight-day “Festival of Light,” or “Feast of Dedication,” begins on the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month called Kislev, which usually falls in late November or December. Because Christmas and Hanukkah occur around the same time of the year, many people think of Hanukkah as a sort of Jewish Christmas, but that is far from the case.
The meaning and significance of Hanukkah is individual, steeped in Jewish tradition and experience. What the two holidays do have in common, however, is a complex history, and the use of ritual and symbolism in their celebration. Hanukkah, like Christmas, is a midwinter festival, and like Christmas, marks a single event but uses rituals and customs from other holidays and festivals.
The Roots of the Festival
More than 2,000 years ago, the people of Judea (Southern Palestine, including Jerusalem) were the subjects of various kings and empires. In time, the people of Judea became subjects of the Greek empire. When Alexander the Great came to rule his empire, he sought to spread Greek culture, known as Hellenic culture, to the world, beginning with his occupied territories. Thus began the so-called Helleniza-tion of the Jewish people, a cultural exchange that was originally peaceful.
When Alexander died, his kingdom was divided up between his generals, one of whom was Seleucis. Seleucis’s domain extended across, Asia Minor and Syria. It was under Seleucis that conditions changed, and laws were brought in forbidding the Jewish people from practicing their religion and forcing them to adopt Hellenic practices instead, enforced by an oppressive army campaign.
Then, in a small village called Modi’in, a priest named Mattathias, along with his five sons, mounted an opposition and managed to surprise and overcome the soldiers. The success of this band, known collectively as the Maccabees, gave their compatriots hope, and soon new recruits from all over were making their way to the hills to train.
Over the next three years, the Maccabees achieved victory after victory. When Mattath-ias died, his son Judah took over and led the Maccabees to the ultimate success: the defeat of the Syrian army and the reclaiming of the Temple in Jerusalem, in the year 165 B.C.
When worshipers went to light the Temple lamps as part of the rededication ceremony, however, they found only enough purified oil to burn for one day. Miraculously, the lamp continued to burn for eight days, which was enough time to prepare new oil.
The eight days of Hanukkah, therefore, commemorate the miracle of the oil, and also the miracle of the Maccabees’ victory over a much larger, better-trained, and better-equipped army. Over time, that has come to symbolize victory and survival in the face of great odds, especially the survival of religious freedom.
The Evolution of the Festival
After that first celebration in the Temple, Judah decreed that the miracle of the Jewish victory should be commemorated every year in the same fashion. Over the centuries, borrowing a bit from other Jewish festivals and inspiring some customs of its own, Hanukkah has evolved into the holiday we recognize today.
In the years immediately following the Maccabean victory, having these legends to fall back on became increasingly important to the survival of Hanukkah. Within thirty years, the Jewish lands came under Roman rule, and a holiday that rejoiced in Jewish battle success and nationalism would not have been tolerated. So the legend of the oil moved to the forefront, thereby masking the deeper reasons behind Hanukkah until it was safe for them to come to prominence again.
There are several explanations for the festival's eight-day duration. The most widely accepted is that it commemorates the eight days that the lamps stayed lit. There is also a legend that Judah and his followers found eight enemy spears in the Temple, which they made into a lamp stand. Some observers think that the eight days are the result of combining the Hanukkah festivities with other Jewish festivals.
Today in the United States, Hanukkah is celebrated for the most part quietly at home, with family and friends. Though observance of the holiday may vary from house to house, the Menorah—a candleholder with space for nine candles, including a central candle known as the shamash, or “servant,” candle that lights all others—is the central element of any Hanukkah celebration. On the first night of Hanukkah, one candle on the candelabrum is lit by the shamash. Each night after the first an additional candle is lit, until all eight are aglow on the final night.
Hanukkah is a happy holiday, full of food and good cheer. On the fifth night of Hanukkah, many families engage in a formal gathering known as the Night of the Fifth Candle dinner. This is typically the time during the festival when family members and friends from far away make a special effort to gather with their loved ones. These days, this special gathering is not always restricted to the fifth night of Hanukkah, but may take place on the night during the festival that the most people can attend.
Over the course of the eight days, families usually entertain friends at home, eating, drinking, singing, and generally being merry. Songs echo through the halls and small gifts are exchanged on many nights. Depending on the family’s preference, the custom of giving one small gift per night can be modified to one or two larger gifts given on only a few nights.
Hanukkah observances in the synagogue consist of reading passages from the Torah on each of the eight days. Psalms 113 through 118 and the prayer of Al Ha-Nissim may also be read. Many temples and synagogues sponsor Hanukkah festivals, as do schools and community centers. Most of the activity is geared toward children, featuring plays, concerts, parties, and food.
Though not the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah stands out as a time of great merriment. Hanukkah is important to the Jewish people as a reminder of a miraculous time in their history, but it can be a valuable reminder to all of the potential of the human spirit.
While food selections for Passover and other Jewish holidays arise from strict observances of religious law and ritual, the specific items of Hanukkah fare have evolved, in no small measure, under the influence of later customs.
Often served with sour cream, potato latkes are made from grated potato combined with egg, onion, and flour. The mixture is fried in oil, which symbolizes the miracle oil that kept the Temple lamps burning for eight days.
The sufganiyot, or holeless jelly donuts, are another favorite Hanukkah delicacy, particularly in Israel. They’re also cooked in hot oil, after which they might be coated with sugar or cinnamon.
Dairy products are also popular, as a result of the legend of Judith, daughter of the Maccabees. It is said that Judith once entertained an enemy leader by feeding him large quantities of cheese. The man became so thirsty that he had to drink more wine than he should have, which dulled his senses and made him easy to capture.
Hanukkah Games and Gifts
The dreidel, a top with four marked sides, is by far the most popular Hanukkah toy. Each side of the dreidel is marked with a Hebrew letter representing the words in the sentence, “A great miracle happened there.” As the top spins and comes to rest, nuts, sweets, or pennies are traded among the players.
Money given during Hanukkah is called Hanukkah gelt. In older times, this money was given to children so they could buy a gift for their Hebrew school teacher. These days, they are allowed to keep most, if not all, of the money for themselves. Hanukkah gelt remains one of the more popular Hanukkah gifts.
Katowes are popular among older children. These brain twisters are puzzles and riddles of sorts; all of the answers to these puzzles must be in numbers that equal forty-four, which is the total number of candles lit during the Hanukkah festival. Adults may pass the time playing checkers or chess.