Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights
Hanukkah is an eight-night Jewish celebration, also known as the Festival of Lights, and stems from a storied past.
The holiday is based on the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C. — considered by many the holiest place at the time — after it had been desecrated by the Syrians. The destruction was directed by Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes — he was on a mission to spread the worship of Greek gods by abolishing Judaism.
A resistance movement led by the Maccabees to maintain the Jewish culture against Antiochus’ rule led to a battle between the Syrians and the Maccabees. The Maccabee fighters defeated Syrian forces despite the odds stacked against them.
They relit the Ner Tamid, an eternal light in every synagogue, and rededicated the temple. This led to the naming of the holiday Hanukkah, meaning dedication.
The popular legend of one jar of oil found in the destroyed temple that miraculously burned for eight nights, when it should have only been enough for one day, is not the reason for the eight-day celebration. The holiday is instead celebrated for eight days in coordination with the festival of Sukkot, which is another eight-day Jewish celebration that gives thanks for the fall harvest and has also come to commemorate the 40 years of Jewish wandering in the desert.
The rituals of the celebration of Hanukkah include the lighting of the menorah, prayers, songs, traditional foods, and the dreidel.
Each night, one branch of the menorah, or one candle, is lit as the sun sets. A ninth holder, called the shamash, is for a candle used to light all the other candles or serve as an extra light. One candle is lit on the first night, two on the second, and so on. Candles are added and lit from left to right, but no specific order is specified.
Three prayers accompany the first night of candle lighting, and two prayers are said or sung on the next seven nights.
The traditional foods associated with the Hanukkah celebration revolve around oil. Foods are fried in oil to symbolize the miraculous oil. Latkes, potato pancakes served with applesauce and sour cream, and sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts, are often eaten during the celebration.
A dreidel, a four-sided top, is used to play a Hanukkah gambling game. Each side of the top has a different Hebrew letter: nun, gimel, hei, and shin. Each player takes turns spinning the dreidel, and the letter on the side it lands on represents an action. These actions include adding to the pot (shin), winning part (hei) or the entirety of the pot (gimel), or doing nothing (nun). A variety of items can be used as currency, most often small coins or chocolate coins.
In contrast with the modern celebration of Hanukkah, gifts weren’t traditionally part of the Festival of Lights. Children may be given gelt, or money, to reward them for their studying of the Torah and to remind them to give money to charity. Exchanging gifts has become more common in the celebration of Hanukkah in North America.
Hanukkah is both a time to celebrate family and friends, but also a reminder to rededicate or purify and take time to reflect on the past year — what happened, responses, decisions that were made, etc. — to improve choices and behaviors in the new year.
This year, Hanukkah begins on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 10 and will end on the night of Wednesday, Dec. 18.