What is Hanukkah?


As we near the holiday season, many are preparing to celebrate different holidays. One of these holidays is Hanukkah. It is also called Chanukah and is celebrated over eight days. 

This year Hanukkah will start on the evening of September 18th and end on the evening of December 26th.

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday known as the Jewish Festival of Lights. Its inspiration came from a miracle about 2,000 years ago. It celebrates the Maccabean victories over the Seleucid king and the rededication of the Temple on Kislev. During the 2nd century BCE, the Seleucids ruled the Holy Land (Syrian-Greeks). They attempted to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of mitzvah observance and faith in God.

A small group of armed Jews, led by Judah the Macabee, defeated the Greek army, one of the mightiest armies in the world, and reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem re-dedicating it to the service of God.

When they arrived at the Holy Temple, they tried to light the Temple’s menorah, but they only found one jar of oil that the Greeks had not contaminated. They lit this menorah, and miraculously the oil lasted for eight days. These eight days gave them enough time to prepare new oil under the conditions of ritual purity. To commemorate this miracle, the sages created the festival of Hanukkah.

People worldwide celebrate this festival, and one of the main ways is the nightly menorah lightning. The menorah has nine lights, and one is the shamash (“attendant”) used to light other candles. One additional candle is lit each night, and by the end of the eight days, all lights will be kindled. Special blessings are often recited to a traditional melody before the menorah is lit, and prayers are recited afterward. Each house lights its menorah and places it in a doorway or window. Oftentimes the menorahs will often appear in synagogues and other public places.

A menorah lit for Hanukkah

Some non-religious traditions associated with Hanukkah include making latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (donuts), and other treats fried in oil to celebrate the miracle of the oil. Often, children receive presents and Hanukkah gelt in chocolate coins. 

Latkes or potato pancakes are often eaten during Hanukkah. (Joel Goldberg for The New York Times)

Many children play a game called dreidel, which includes a 4-sided top. A dreidel has Hebrew writing on each side. The game begins with each player placing a portion of their gelt, cons, or other small items into a central pot. Then each player takes a turn spinning the dreidel, and depending on which side the top lands on, the Hebrew writing will say if the player should take nothing, take everything, take half or put one in.

The four different sides of a dreidel.

A first-year student here at Green Level celebrates Hanukkah by going to their grandma’s house for dinner and having a feast. They said that one unique tradition they have is that they get to say the prayer, and their family lights the candles. They said, “my favorite thing about celebrating is eating the amazing food and seeing my family.” They included that some particular food they eat includes “Latkes, Jelly filled Doughnuts, Brikest, and Grape Juice/Sweet Wine.”

Happy Hanukkah to all who celebrate!