Chanukah is the Jewish Holiday celebrated this year beginning at nightfall on Tuesday, December 4 and ending at nightfall on December 12. Like all the Jewish Holidays, the time of its celebration is determined by the Lunar Calendar, with Chanukah beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev and ending several days into the month of Tevet. Chanukah always falls within a several-week period in December.
The Hebrew word, Chanukah, comes from the word for dedication, in this case signifying the re-dedication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In approximately 167 BCE the Syrian-Greek emperor, Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, whose rule extended over the land of Israel, banned the observance of several important religious commandments, in an effort to forcibly acculturate all his subjects into his religious belief system.
Per Jewish tradition, the more powerful army of Antiochus was eventually defeated by the “Maccabees,” a small band of Jews who fought back with faith in God and the promise of his salvation from the Greeks. Per “The Book of Maccabees,” the military tactics of this small band led by Judah Maccabee were quite creative as well. Upon defeating the Greeks and regaining control of their Holy Temple, the Jews set out to re-dedicate it but found only enough pure olive oil to re-light the Menorah (seven-branched candelabrum as ordained in Exodus 25:31) for one day. However, they needed oil for eight days until new ritually pure olive oil could be produced or retrieved. A miracle occurred and the oil burned for eight days.
The miracles of the unlikely victory of the smaller, less powerful army and the burning of the oil for eight days are therefore celebrated for eight days every year at the same time on the Jewish calendar.
The most important and best-known observance of Chanukah is the lighting of the Menorah, a candelabrum with 9 branches. Although most Jews nowadays are fortunate enough to own a candelabra specifically for this observance, often quite beautiful and valuable, in poorer times a Menorah was fashioned much more crudely, including hollowing out part of a potato, filling it with oil and lighting it.
On the first night of Chanukah one candle is lit, the second night, two candles are lit and so on until the eighth night. Each night one other candle is lit, known as the “Shamash,” a candle added so as not to derive the benefit of the lights that were specifically lit to observe the holiday. In the olden days the custom was to light the Menorah outdoors by the entrance to one’s home or courtyard. In our times, the Menorah is lit indoors, preferably in a window facing the street so that everyone can see our celebration of this miracle. In Israel, many still have the custom to light the Menorah outdoors, encased in a special glass case so the candles will not be extinguished by the wind.
Before the advent of wax candles, everyone lit the Menorah with olive oil and wicks. Thought most Jews light regular candles nowadays, many continue to use olive oil to more directly remember the original miracle. Thought a bit messy, at least at first, olive oil burns steadily and beautifully. Some Jews commemorate this observance using electric Menorahs.
Other observances of this holiday include the eating of “latkes,” potato pancakes, fried in oil, to celebrate the miracle that occurred with the oil for the Holy Temple. In Israel (and increasingly here) the custom is to eat “sufganiyot,” or jelly donuts, fried in oil. The “oil crisis” thus takes on a different meaning during this holiday period.
Playing “dreidel” is a widespread custom as well. Dreidel is a Yiddish word from the word “spin,” not to be confused with the Hebrew word “sevivon,” from the Hebrew word for spin. A dreidel is a four-sided top of any size or material on which four Hebrew letters are written, an acronym that stands for “a great miracle happened there.” Dreidel is generally played for pennies, chips or regular money, with each letter signifying a different action, including winning the whole pot, half the pot, paying into the pot or doing nothing.
Special prayers are also added to the regular daily prayer service thanking God for his protection.
The traditional giving of “Chanukah Gelt” has been linked to various sources, including the sharing of the booty from the battles against the Syrian-Greeks. I have never succeeded in finding a strong source for gift giving on Chanukah, but who would want to disprove such a wonderful custom.
Happy Chanukah and Happy Holidays to all!
Rabbi Steven Axelman is the spiritual leader of the Whitestone Hebrew Centre.