If you are not familiar with the Jewish holidays then you may find yourself wondering what Hanukkah is and what a Hanukkah menorah might be. These phrases are commonly used in reference to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, an eight day celebration of our victory against the ancient Greeks. Many Jewish holidays are connected to the long ago history of the Jewish people, and celebrating the same things today unifies us with a common history and allows us to celebrate our heritage together. Hanukkah has a wealth of traditions and ceremonies that make it meaningful as well as a lot of fun.
The story of Hanukkah is an epic tale of biblical proportions: When the 2nd Temple stood, the Holy Land was ruled by the Greeks, under King Antiochus’ rule. They robbed the Jews of their property, set up idols in the Beit-HaMikdash (temple). They were very powerful, and very controlling of what they would allow the Jews to practice of their faith. One day, Mattityahu and his sons (the Hashmonaim) rose up and revolted against the Greek leadership, driving them from the land of Israel, and then restored the Temple to it’s former pure glory. They returned the seven pronged lamp, the Menorah, and found the last sealed jug of pure olive oil with the high priest’s stamp to light it up. The oil should have lasted only one day, but the Menorah lights
burned for eight days straight, enough time to prepare more of the special oil (made from the first squeeze that comes from each olive, sealed by a high priest). Thus we celebrate the miracle of the victory of few against many, and the eight days that the Menorah in the temple shone bright while more oil was being procured.
Modern day Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting a Hanukkiyah, a lamp similar to the Temple Menorah, but with eight prongs plus a Shamash (the candle you light the rest with) by the window. Every night of Hanukkah you say blessings, sing ‘Maoz Tzur’, and light one more candle than the previous night, until you reach the full eight on the last night, and the candles must shine for at least half an hour, during which you engage in other holiday traditions and family time. Wax Hanukkah candles may be used for convenience, but many prefer to light special olive oil candles, a special setup with a glass cup candle which you put olive oil in, and a wick.
Other holiday traditions include:
Chocolate Gelt (or chocolate coins) often used as barter in dreidel games now and enjoyed as a delicious treat, the tradition actually originated from polish parents giving money to their children at Hanukkah time to pass on to their teachers as a holiday gift.
Playing Dreidel a spinning top game played by the children in Greek inhabited Israel, who took it out and used the game as a cover up for their Torah study, which was prohibited by law, when Greek officials walked by. You play the game according to the letters on the four sides of the top. Nun, Gimmel, Hay, Shin/Pey which stand for ‘nes gadol haya sham/po’ which is Hebrew for ‘a great miracle was there/here’ with dreidels outside of Israel having the shin for ‘there’ and the Israeli dreidels having the pey for ‘here’. On your turn, if the top lands on Nun, nothing happens. If it lands on Gimmel, you get all the gelt in the pot. If it lands on Hay, you get half of the gelt in the pot. If it lands on Shin/Pey, you put three gelt coins in the pot. The rules vary according to the family but it is a wonderful family game to play in the golden light of the Menorah. And in the end everyone gets delicious chocolate coins to munch on.
Eating Latkes, potato pancakes (and other fried foods) as a reminder of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one.
Hanukkah Gifts are also traditional – giving gifts simply to celebrate the holiday and the miracles given to us back then. And the celebration of finally having our precious land of Israel back is something we should appreciate and celebrate even now.