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Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah!

Large menorah outside Temple Emanuel Greensboro. Courtesy Temple Emanuel.
Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish festival that takes place towards the end of each calendar year. This year, it started on Sunday night, November 28th. The main ritual of Hanukkah is the lighting of candles each evening in Jewish homes and communities. One candle is lit on the first night, two on the second, and so forth through the eighth night. It is also customary to eat foods cooked in oil throughout Hanukkah.

Hanukkah commemorates the first recorded battle for religious freedom in history, as Jewish people faced down the Assyrian Greek forces which had overtaken them in the land of Israel 2200 years ago. This time period is recorded in the apocryphal books of Maccabees, as well as in other historical sources.

Hanukkah is a time of Jewish pride. The Hebrew word Hanukkah means rededication. When the Jewish people returned to their desecrated Temple in Jerusalem, it needed to be repaired and rededicated. Only one canister of oil for the Menorah, the holy candelabrum which needed to be lit each day, was found. That oil should have lasted for only one day. It wound up lighting the ancient Menorah for 8 days.

Was it miraculous that the oil lasted for eight days? Of course. But an even more powerful miracle is that someone, knowing that the oil would only last a day, decided to strike the match and light the oil anyway. Hanukkah brings a message of hope: that the small will be able to overcome those more numerous, that those seen as weak will outlast those who are more heavily armed, and that the oppressed will win out over their oppressors.

This year, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah began at sundown on Sunday, November 28, and will continue with the last night (the eighth nigh) of celebrations occurring at sundown on Monday, December 6. Here are some frequently asked questions and answers about this religious holiday observed by Jewish people around the world.

  1. What does Hanukkah celebrate?

    Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem during the second century B.C., following the triumph of a small group of Jewish rebel warriors led by Judah Maccabee. They were known as the Maccabees. This group fought against their oppressors the Greek-Assyrians, who defiled the temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificed pigs within its sacred walls. In order to rededicate the temple, the Maccabees had to light a menorah that would burn within the temple at all times. However, they only had enough pure olive oil to last for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, leaving time to find a fresh supply of oil.

  2. The Menorah

    Menorah is the Hebrew word for lamp. It has seven branches. It was originally used in the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Menorahs were lit daily using olive oil of the purest quality. A Hanukkah menorah is used specifically to light the candles (or oil menorahs) on Hanukkah. With nine branches, it is lit each night to celebrate the miracle of oil lasting eight days.

  3. How to Light a Menorah

    There are very specific rules about lighting a menorah; luckily most of them rely on simply knowing your left from your right. The menorah has nine branches, one for each night of the Festival of Lights, plus a shamash, meaning helper. This candle is lit first and then used to light the other candles. The shamash always sits a bit higher or lower than the rest of the candles so as to not get confused with the others. The candles are placed on the menorah from right to left, the same direction in which one reads Hebrew. However, when lighting the menorah you move in the opposite direction, using the shamash to the light the candles from left to right.

    How many candles will you need in total? 44. Each night a new candle is added to the menorah, plus a shamash, and burned all the way through. Most boxes of Hanukkah candles come with a total of 44 candles.

  4. The traditional use of oil applies to the holiday’s foods.

    Potato pancakes and jelly donuts are traditional dishes to eat for Hanukkah. The miracle of the oil lasting eight days is celebrated by lighting the menorah and by dining on popular traditional foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) which are traditionally deep fried in oil. There are healthier alternatives which call for baking instead of the frying.

  5. The dreidel

    Dreidels are four-sided spinning tops used to play a gambling game. They actually predate the story of the Maccabees. During the Maccabean revolt, dreidels were used as a type of decoy after the Greek-Assyrian armies of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes enacted a series of laws outlawing many Jewish religious practices. The Jewish people simply moved their studies of the Torah underground, pulling out their dreidels and pretending to play games to confuse soldiers. Since then, dreidel has been resurrected as a fun game played during Hanukkah for chocolate coins called gelt, to commemorate this time. Each side of the dreidel has a different Hebrew letter, which tells the player how much to put in, or take out, of the pot. Nun (None) - Take zero candy. Gimel - Take all of the candy. Hay - Take half of the candy. Shin – Add a piece of candy in the pot. Together, the four letters on the dreidel form the acronym for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” which means “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the miracle of the oil lasting eight days in Israel.

  6. Why is Hanukkah celebrated on different dates?

    According to the Hebrew calendar (which is a Lunar based calendar), Hanukkah always falls on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. The first day of Hanukkah can come as early as November or as late as the end of December running into January. Sometimes, Hanukkah may overlap with Thanksgiving or Christmas. The last time Hanukkah and Thanksgiving – Thanksgivukkah overlapped was in 2103. Hanukkah and Christmas saw simultaneous celebrations in 2005 and will coincide with one another again in 2024.

  7. Why does Hanukkah have so many different spellings?

    The word Hanukkah is a Hebrew word. Variations in spelling have come about when the word must be written in English, which does not have exact equivalents to the Hebrew alphabet. This difference has led to the many English spelling variations we see today: Hanukkah, Hanukah, Hannukah, Hanuka, Chanukkah. Chanukah, Channukah, Chanuka. Pronunciation of these variations are all the same.

  8. Get a menorah and some candles, grab some dreidels and gelt, eat some latkes and sufganiyot; and have a Happy Hanukkah.