Hanukkah can be a mysterious holiday to those who don’t celebrate it. Although in recent years its history has come more into the public eye, Hanukkah continues to intrigue many. For believers, it is an annual commemoration. Learn a brief history of the celebration and its traditions.
According to History.com, Hanukkah began as a remembrance of the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. In 168 B.C.E., Hellenist Syrians seized the Jewish temple, dedicating it to the worship of Zeus.
The Jews decided to fight back. The battling began in Modiin, when a Jewish High Priest killed a Greek officer. The priest’s sons and other villagers attacked and killed soldiers. After going into hiding, they and other Jews attacked Greek soldiers as often as possible.
Judah Maccabee, along with his soldiers, went to the temple in Jerusalem. They cleaned and repaired it. The group determined to hold a rededication ceremony. There was only enough oil to light the menorah for one day, but miraculously the oil lasted for eight days.
Modern Hanukkah is a commemoration of that event. Jews light one candle of the menorah a day for eight days. The holiday is also known as the Festival of Lights.
Hanukkah is overflowing with unique cultural traditions and celebrations. These include the food, games, and rituals that accompany the eight-day celebration. One of the most famous items is the dreidel, a spinning top. According to The Jewish Outreach Institute, the name comes from the German word for “top.” The game became popular for Hanukkah celebrations because it was one of the few times of year that rabbis allowed games of chance. The dreidel is a gambling game in which players ante up and then spin the top, which determines what they may or may not win. After awhile, the original gambling terms (represented by Hebrew letters on the dreidel) were made to stand for the phrase, “A miracle happened there,” calling to mind the origin of Hanukkah.
Another traditional item is gelt, which comes from the Yiddish word for “money.” This custom calls to mind the years after the temple was taken back by the Jews and the new coins minted by them. However, it was during the Middle Ages that the tradition became a stronghold. Gelt was given to teachers and later to children to remind them of the importance of study. Nowadays gelt can take the form of specially minted coins, savings bonds, chocolate-wrapped coins, or checks.
Potato latkes are a favored food during the Hanukkah season. Originally the pancakes were made of cheese, but now potatoes are the main ingredient. They are cooked in oil, reminding celebrants of the miracle of the single night’s worth of oil during the Temple rededication.
The Jewish Outreach Institute