Hanukkah otherwise spelled as Hanukkah, begins on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, corresponding to nightfall on December 22. The festival of lights, which lasts eight days, is celebrated all over the world with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers and foods fried in oil. While Hanukkah is considered a “minor” Jewish festival, not mentioned in Jewish scripture, it is fun and joyous.
The story of Hanukkah is familiar to most Jewish people. The Hebrew word Hanukkah means “dedication.”
The Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) ruled the land we now call Israel in the second century BCE. The regime of Antiochus IV tried to force the Jews to assimilate into Greek culture, and some Jews, called Hellenists, were willingly doing that. Antiochus made Jewish rituals such as circumcision, Shabbat and holiday observance and Torah study illegal. When the Syrian-Greeks tried to force the Jews to sacrifice a pig to a Greek god, a band of courageous Jews called the Maccabees began a revolt that ended up defeating a mighty army of thousands of well-equipped troops. After three years the Maccabees beat incredible odds and drove the oppressors from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and proceeded to rededicate it.
When the Maccabees tried to light the Temple’s menorah, they found one container of oil that was supposed to last one day. The oil lasted eight days, time enough to purify more of it, providing the miracle of Hanukkah. For that reason, it is an eight-day celebration of achieving religious freedom against all odds and being empowered to rededicate the Temple.
The menorah is central to the Hanukkah celebration. Candles in the menorah are supposed to be lit at nightfall and to burn for at least 30 minutes after that. On Friday, the menorah should be lit 18 minutes before sundown, and then the Shabbat candles should be lit. Some people use olive oil, because the miracle of the Maccabees happened with olive oil. Glass cups containing oil can be placed in the candle holders of a menorah. The menorah should be highly visible—outside the doorway of a house or in a window. Some Jewish organizations hold public menorah lightings with jumbo menorahs in front of city halls and legislative buildings, in malls and parks and in front of synagogues.
In the U.S., Hanukkah is characterized by eating potato latkes, playing dreidel and giving gifts. Because the Hanukkah miracle concerned oil, the latke—which originated in Eastern Europe—is the delicacy of choice, topped with applesauce or sour cream.
The dreidel, a four-sided spinning top with the Hebrew letters, nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for “nes gadol hayah sham, a great miracle happened there,” is used to play a game with winners based on which letter the dreidel lands when it spins. The dreidel is thought to have originated in places where Jews were persecuted and Torah study was forbidden. Jewish children learned Torah anyway. When soldiers came to investigate, they pulled out a dreidel and pretended to be playing with it.
Instead of gift giving, the tradition is to give Hanukkah gelt (money), which has manifested itself in the appearance of foil-covered chocolate coins. Still, many American children get a nightly gift during Hanukkah.
Jewish families in the U.S. face the “December dilemma” of how involved the children should be in activities concerning the celebration of other religions or whether the Hanukkah celebration should mimic the elaborate gifts and decorations of other religions at that time of year. Rabbis advise Jewish families to heed the lesson of assimilation in the story of Hanukkah.
In Israel, many people light menorahs outside in special glass boxes. The dreidel has the letters, nun, gimmel, hei and pei for “nes gadol hayah po, a great miracle happened here.” Instead of latkes, Israelis eat sufganiyot, jelly- or cream-filled doughnuts.
Jews in India use wicks dipped in coconut oil instead of candles to light their menorahs. Hanukkah treats include native foods such as burfi (coconut fudge), halwa (semolina and nuts) and samosas (meat, vegetables, seafood, cheese or nuts and raisins stuffed into dough).
In Yemen and North Africa, Jews celebrate the heroines of Hanukkah—Hannah and Judith—on the seventh night. Jews in Morocco eat fried jelly doughnuts called sfeni that include the juice and zest of an orange.
Jews in Turkey sing a Hanukkah song called “Ocho Candelas” about the eight candles on the menorah. The fried food of choice is a fritter called a burmelo.
Italy has its own rendition of a special Hanukkah food. A delicacy that comes from Turin, precipizi, is a lightly sweetened, olive oil infused, honey-covered ball.
Colombian Jews have an unusual Hanukkah food. Patacones are plantain slices fried in oil.
However you celebrate Hanukkah, may it be full of light and joy.
Thanks to www.chabad.org, www.aish.com, www.judaism101.org, www.reformjudaism.org and www.jscreen.org for nuggets of information on Hanukkah. Check them out to learn more. There are recipes for all of the Hanukkah foods eaten around the world as well.
ILENE SCHNEIDER IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.