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HANUKKAH: Celebrate the triumph of light over darkness

Posted by Heath Rosenzweig on

HANUKKAH, the Jewish festival of rededication, is also known as the Festival of Lights. Beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, the festival lasts eight days. It celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE, and the miracle of lights that happened after that victory.


 Alexander the Great conquered Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control a certain level of autonomy, including the freedom to continue observing their own religions.

More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV, controlled the region. He began to severely oppress the Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, massacring Jews, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar.

Two groups opposed Antiochus: a nationalist group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim. These two groups joined forces in a revolt against the oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded, and the Temple was rededicated.

According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, there was little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks at the time of the rededication. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night, but there was only enough oil to burn for one day. Yet miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, exactly the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.


Much of the activity of Hanukkah takes place at home, with families gathering to share and celebrate the miracle of lights.


Central to the holiday is the lighting of the hanukkiah, an eight-branched candelabrum. At the end of each day, one candle is added to the hanukkiah, until it is ablaze with light on the eighth day.

It is important to highlight that the hanukkiah is also referred to–erroneously–as a Hanukkah menorah. In fact, a true menorah only has seven branches.


In commemoration of the miracle of the oil, it is traditional to eat foods fried in oil. The most familiar Hanukkah food are latkes, Ashkenazi potato pancakes. For those with a sweet tooth, sufganiyot, or jelly donuts, are a big favorite.


Playing with the dreidel is also a way to celebrate this time of the year. A dreidel is a spinning top inscribed with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei, and shin, an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which means "a great miracle happened there."


Another fun custom for children during Hanukkah is the Hanukkah gelt in which they receive small amounts of money from their older relatives. Some parents offer chocolate "coins", bite sized pieces wrapped in gold or silver foil. Others give real money to the children of the house, as an official Hanukkah gift.


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