Meanings of Hanukkah

The mid-winter holiday of Hanukkah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev, is an ancient religious-national holiday which celebrates the victory of the Maccabees (a family from the priestly tribe) in 164 BCE over the Seleucid Greeks and their cruel king Antiochus Epiphanes. A candelabrum is lit for eight nights, in celebration of the Maccabees' rededication of the defiled Holy Temple, and in celebration of freedom.

The story of this Jewish uprising against foreign oppression and the liberation and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem is told in the apocryphal Book of Maccabees. "And there upon your children came into the shrine of your house... and did light lamps in your holy courts, and appointed these eight days to be kept with praise and thanksgiving...and we thank your great name" (I Maccabees 4:49).

Miracle of the Lamp

The sages of the Talmud embellish the historical reason for the festival with the story of the pure oil found in the Temple; though sufficient for only day only, this oil miraculously burned for eight days until new supplies could be prepared. In commemoration of this miraculous event, a special Hanukkah lamp with eight lights is lit each night of the holiday, beginning with one on the first eve and adding one light each succeeding night. Hanukkah is also known as Hag ha-Urim (Festival of Lights).

A debate takes place in the Mishnah in which the House of Shammai promotes lighting eight lights the first night, and reducing one light each night, while the House of Hillel promotes the custom of lighting one light the first night, and adding a light each night. The latter custom was adopted, according to the principle, "One adds to holiness, and does not diminish it."

Rather than focusing on the military aspect of the festival, the rabbis chose to emphasize the survival of religious values in the face of pagan and idolatrous opposition. In modern times, especially in the State of Israel, the opposite tendency can be noted.

At Home

Each night the Hanukkah lamp (hanukkiah) is lit, increasing a light each night. On the first night, three blessings are recited. On the second and subsequent nights only the first two blessings are recited. On Sabbath eve, the Hanukkah candles are lit before the Shabbat candles.

In modern Hebrew the eight-branched menorah is known as a hanukkiah, so as to differentiate it from the 6-branched candelabrum in the Temple, which was known as a menorah. A ninth socket in the hanukkiah holds a server (shamash), which is used to light the other candles or oil wicks.

The blessings said when lighting the candles:

Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha'olam, asher kid-shanu be'mizvotav ve'zivanu le-hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.
(Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your mitzvot and has commanded us to kindle light for Hannkah.)

Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha'olam, she'asah nisim la'avotenu bayamin ha-hem bazman ha-zeh.
(Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors, in those days, at this time.)

Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha'olam, she'hecheyanu v'kiymanu v'higiyanu lazman ha-zeh.
(Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this day.)

A popular Hanukkah game is the spinning of a top (dreidl in Yiddish, sevivon in Hebrew) with four sides, on each side of which are the four Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, heh, shin (acrostic for Nes gadol haya sham — A great miracle happened there).

In Israel, the last letter is a peh instead of a shin, so that the acronym stands for Nes gadol naya poh (A great miracle happened here). If the top falls on nun, the player takes nothing from the pot (of nuts, raisins, or coins); if it falls on the gimel, s/he takes the whole pot; if it falls on hay the player takes half; and if it falls on the shin (or peh in Israel) s/he must add to the pot.

Given the dedication theme of the festival (Hanukkah literally means dedication in Hebrew), is also customary to affix a mezuzah to a doorpost in the home that has yet to receive one. The mezuzah is affixed to the right side of the doorpost of Jewish homes in accordance with the Biblical injunction: "Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:9; 11:20). The mezuzah is written on a rectangular piece of parchment by a trained scribe. On one side are the verses of Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; on the reverse side is written the divine name Shaddai (Almighty). The parchment is rolled up and inserted in a case, with the letters Shaddai exposed at an opening. Mezuzah cases vary in size, material and style.

Traditional Foods

Latkes, fried in oil as a reminder of the miracle of the oil (latkes is Yiddish for fried pancakes; known in Hebrew as levivot); dishes made with honey and fruit (such as tsimmes — potatoes with carrots, prunes and honey. In Israel it is customary to serve jelly donuts (sufganiot).




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