Hanukkah (also spelled as Chanukah) is a joyous time in Judaism, celebrating a miracle that occurred in ancient times, over twenty-one centuries ago, when a small band of Jewish warriors defeated a large army that had occupied Jerusalem. Upon reclaiming Jerusalem, the Holy Temple was cleansed and rededicated. One part of the rededication required the lighting of the menorah, which required pure olive oil dedicated by the High Priest. Unfortunately, only one container of pure olive oil was available to light the menorah; yet, somehow, that single container, which should have only lasted a single day, lasted eight days and nights. That miracle is why many refer to Hanukkah as the “Festival of Lights”. As a remembrance of that miracle, as well as the incredible defeat of the much larger enemy forces, the holiday of Hanukkah came into being.
The lighting of the menorah follows a time-honored tradition. Hanukkah lasts eight nights and days; as with all Jewish holidays, the holiday begins at sundown. On the first night, a single candle is lit. On the second night, that first candle is lit, and used to light a second candle. On the third night, the first candle is lit, and used to light the second and third candles. This pattern continues through to the eighth and final night, when all eight candles are lit.
Hanukkah has other traditions associated with it; the holiday is not just about lighting candles. Traditional prayers, Hallel and Al HaNissim, are recited to give thanks to God for lending strength to the Jewish freedom fighters.
Foods fried in oil serve as yet another remembrance regarding the miracle of the oil. On of the most common and well-known foods fried in oil is latkes (potato pancakes); surprisingly, potato latkes have only been around for some 400 years or so.
Prior to the use of potatoes being used as latkes, cheese latkes were used, as a remembrance of another victory during the same time period. Tradition tells us that the residents of a Jewish town were near death because a Greek general had seized control of the town’s only source of water. One brave young woman, reportedly beautiful, was invited to dine with the general. She refused his food, as it was not kosher, but brought salty cheeses and wine to share with the general. The more he ate, the thirstier he became, and the more wine he drank. When he passed out, she took his sword and decapitated him. His band of soldiers fled the town and thus the townspeople regained access to their water and survived. Cheese and wine remain another favored element of the holiday to this day. The woman’s bravery also causes for women to be obligated to light the menorah for the holiday. In some families, women are excused from doing work as long as the candles burn each night.
A game is played with a dreidel, which is a four-sided spinning top. On each side of the top, a single Hebrew character is displayed. For dreidels manufactured to be used outside of Israel, the letters serve as an acronym for the phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham”, which, roughly translated, means “a great miracle happened there”. The letters of the acronym are Nun to stand for Nes; Gimmel, to stand for Gadol; Hei to stand for Hayah; and Shin, to stand for Sham. Dreidels manufactured to be used in Israel have a significant difference: instead of the word “Sham”, the word “Po” is represented by the letter Peh. Po means “here” – meaning Israel.
Another custom is to give money, also known as gelt, especially to younger children. This custom originated to help children in two ways. Children are quizzed on their knowledge of the holiday and other Jewish customs; correct answers earn gelt. The other area was to teach children to be charitable; many families use this to encourage their children to share the joy of giving. Gelt can be given on any night of Hanukkah, with the exception being during the Sabbath (Friday sundown until Saturday sundown). In earlier times, rather than money, children were given sweets and uncommon treats.
Over time, the custom has evolved to include the giving of money and other gifts. Families tend to develop their own customs. The custom my family followed was to give the largest or most special gift on the first night. I still remember one year, about forty years ago, a particularly wonderful gift – a complete 29 gallon aquarium setup. Most years, the small gifts tended to be paperback books, but that year, we were allowed to select fish to add to the aquarium each night.
Hanukkah always begins the evening of Kislev 25 in the Jewish calendar. Because the Jewish calendar and the Gregorian calendar are different, this causes Hanukkah to begin on different dates each year. In 2010, the holiday begins on December 1st; in 2011, on December 20th; on 2012, on December 8th, and in 2013, on November 27th.