An Introduction to Hanukkah
- Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi
Each winter, Jews around the world celebrate the eight-day festival of Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew. The holiday is especially welcome in the northern hemisphere, where it aligns with some of the darkest and shortest days of the year. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates freedom of worship, liberation from oppression, and the bravery of previous generations to seek light in the face of darkness. The ancient story of Hanukkah is told from generation to generation. In 167 BCE, the Jews of Judea were living under the rule of Antiochus IV, a Greek Hellenistic king of Seleucid Empire. The king did not allow Jews to practice their religion; instead, they were expected to pray to statues of Greek gods, including those that were installed in the holy Temple in Jerusalem.
A band of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, rose up in defiance of the king and in defiance of the Hellenization that they were witnessing. After years of fighting, the Maccabees recaptured the Temple, which had been turned into a shrine by the Seleucid empire. A daunting task stood before them: the cleaning, repairing, and restoration of a Temple that had been desecrated. Following careful work, the Temple was rededicated to God. The miraculous defeat of the army of Antiochus and the rededication of the Temple are celebrated every year, beginning on the eve of the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev.
The joyous festival, which lasts for eight days, is one of the coziest Jewish holidays, as it is primarily celebrated at home with family and friends. Much later in history, the length of the festival was said to be symbolic of a small amount of oil that miraculously burned for eight days following the Temple’s rededication. Light has become central to this holiday: in Jewish homes and communities, a Hanukkiah (a special menorah, or lamp, with nine branches) is lit each night of the festival. There is a wick for each night, plus a ninth, called the shamash (the helper), which lights all the other wicks. On the first night, one wick is lit with the shamash. On the second night, two wicks are lit with the shamash, and so on, until the eighth night, when all the branches burn brightly. The lights are a ritual to remind Jews of this story from the past— and also as a reminder of the need to continue to bring light to the world through act of kindness, bravery, and justice. Prayers are chanted each night, blessing God for the act of miracles in dark times.
In addition to lighting the Hanukkiah, families retell of the miracles through foods and games. Foods fried in oil recall the legend of the miracle. Favorite dishes include latkes (potato pancakes), jelly-filled donuts (known as sufganiyot in Israel), bimuelos (fritters), cassolas (ricotta cheese pancakes), and keftes (fried vegetables). Small gifts might also be exchanged, with children often receiving chocolate gelt, or coins. By the light of their menorahs, families play the dreidel game with a spinning top. On each side of the dreidel is a Hebrew letter that stands for the words “Nes gadol haya sham”, “a great miracle happened there.” (In Israel, the letters correspond to the phrase “a great miracle happened here!”) Synagogues host Hanukkah parties, featuring songs, plays, dreidel games, and latke-frying competitions. Hanukkah is also an opportunity for families to make tzedakah, or give donations to charity, in the spirit of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once explained, “There always were two ways to live in a world that is often dark and full of tears. We can curse the darkness or we can light a light. . . A little light drives out much darkness. May we all help light up the world.” Through candle lighting, donations, food, fellowship, and prayers, Hanukah is a time to fill the world with joy, light, and the hope for miracles.
This journal post was written by Dr. Mary Fraser Kirsh
Dr. Mary Fraser Kirsh is an historian and professor of Judaic Studies. She lives in Virginia with her family. When she's not writing, teaching, reading, or horseback riding, she can often be found in the kitchen, experimenting with recipes for the next up-coming holiday. Her favorite sous chefs are her children, and her chocolate cake made with lots of oil is their favorite Hanukkah dessert to make - and eat! - together.
Shop a few items from our Hanukkah collection here.