Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights


David Caine

Chanukkah? Chanukah? Hannukah? Hanukkah? However you may spell it, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is upon us once again. Starting on the evening of Sunday, November 28th, and going through the evening of December 6th, Hanukkah is a time to celebrate how the Jewish people persevered against their Greek-Syrian oppressors and celebrate with family and friends with many fun traditions. 

The date of Hanukkah changes every year, as it follows the Jewish moon calendar, where secular holidays normally go by the sun calendar. Starting on the 25th of Kislev, the third month in the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah usually falls sometime in the middle of December, a little before Christmas. 

Hanukkah, literally translating to “dedication,” celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in the second century B.C.E. Sometime around 200 B.C.E., the land of Judea, now known as Israel, went under the control of the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus lll, who let the Jews live peacefully and still practice their religion. His son, Antiochus lV Epiphanes, wasn’t as kind, and he outlawed Judaism and ordered the Jewish people to worship their Greek gods. In 168 B.C.E., Antiochus’ soldiers attacked Jerusalem, the capital city, massacring hundreds of thousands of innocent people and in the process, the Second Holy Temple was destroyed. A statue of Zeus was placed in the temple, and pigs were sacrificed inside the walls. Pigs are an unkosher animal, making the temple unholy. 

Many Jewish people weren’t happy with what had happened, including Matthathias and his five sons, and with the help of a few other brave individuals, they led a revolt against the king. During the uprising, Matthathias died, and he named his son Judah as his successor. With Judah as the Jewish people’s leader, they drove out the Syrians from Jerusalem, and out of the land of Israel. The Jewish people now had a job ahead of them: cleaning up the temple and making it holy once again, “rededicating” it to God. 

One thing that they had to do to achieve this goal was light the Menorah, a seven branched candelabrum that represents knowledge and creation. The candles were meant to be kept burning every night. This is where the miracle of Hanukkah comes in. Stories say that there was only enough oil to last one day, the oil somehow lasted all eight nights, giving the people enough time to get more. This miracle inspired sages to start a yearly eight-day festival, and so the holiday of Hanukkah was born, a time to remember the miracle of the Jewish victory and the miracle of the oil. This is why Hanukkah is also commonly referred to as the “Festival of Light,” as it celebrates the light that shone from the Menorah for those eight days and nights. 

Of course, like all other holidays, there are many traditions and customs that come with the holiday, like lighting the Hanukkiah every night. A Hanukkiah is a nine-branched candelabra, where every night, two prayers are said, and then we light the candles. There is a special candle called the Shamash, or the “helper” candle. This candle is used to light all the other ones. In order to light the Hanukkiah, you first set up the candles, which correspond to the number night of Hanukkah we are on, going from right to left. We then light the Shamash, say the blessings, and light the candles from left to right. 

On the first night of Hanukkah, a third prayer is said, one that announces that it is the first time this year that we are doing something. This prayer, called the Shehecheyanu, isn’t just recited on Hanukkah; it is a prayer chanted any time during the year when something new happens, or on a big occasion, like other holidays, birthdays, Bar/Bat Mitzvot, or even the first rain of the year. 

Another tradition associated with Hanukkah is the eating of fried foods. Whether they are latkes (potato pancakes) or sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts), most of our food is fried in oil to remember the miracle jar of oil that lasted eight nights. 

There are also games that we play, the biggest and most fun one being dreidel. Dreidel is a game where a person spins a four-sided top, each side with a different Hebrew letter: nun, gimel, hay, and shin. Depending on what side you land on determines what you do next. In the middle of everyone playing, there is customarily a pile of gelt, or chocolate coins. Each player also has a pile in front of them. If you land on nun, you get nothing, and the next person spins the dreidel. If it lands on gimmel, you get everything in the pile. If it lands on hay, you get half of what is in the pile. If you get shin, you must give some of your pile to the middle. The action for this letter varies from household to household. Some people play where you put half of it in the pile, some do it where you put two-thirds, and some have a specific amount that you put in. There is no end to the game, and most people just stop playing when they feel like it. 

I have celebrated Hanukkah for as long as I can remember. I remember always having my own Hanukkiah to light every year. It has changed a lot in the past years, but the one that I use now is a sculpture of Noah’s ark that I got when I went to a Jewish event once when I was little. I remember always playing dreidel with my cousins and having so much fun with them. Hanukkah truly is a time for everyone to come together to celebrate the Jewish people, and how when the odds are stacked against us, we can still persevere.