What is Hanukkah? Why do Jews light candles for this holiday?

With the holiday falling so close to Christmas, the major Hanukkah celebrations are increasingly a sign of American-Jewish identity – a way for Jews to remind themselves and those around us that while we are part of the traditions of this country, too have a culture of our own.

But Jews didn’t always make that fuss about the holiday, which starts on Sunday November 28th this year. The story that led up to the Festival of Lights doesn’t even appear in the Hebrew Bible.

Hanukkah is a rabbinically ordained holiday, as opposed to one that the Torah commands Jews to celebrate. In addition, the work bans on major holidays such as Passover and Rosh Hashanah do not apply to Hanukkah.

Don’t get me wrong, the spiritual lessons of Hanukkah have always been important. And it’s a fun holiday because it gives Jews permission to spend eight nights eating delicious fried food. The most popular are potato pancakes, called levivot in Hebrew but widely referred to by the Yiddish word latkes by American Jews, and sufganiyot, donuts.

Simply put, we eat this fried food – and light candles every night – because the holiday is reminiscent of a miracle with oil.

A diverse group of rebels armed with faith

The short version of the Hanukkah story is as follows: In the second century B.C. The Greeks-Syrians (sometimes referred to by the historically more accurate and politically correct nickname Seleucids) tried to Hellenize the Jews.

They wanted the Jews to deny God and their religion. But the Jewish people refused; They defiantly held on to their beliefs. And under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, a small, diverse group of rebels defeated one of the most powerful armies in the region (although the Greeks were not completely driven from the country and the fighting continued).

After defeating the Seleucids, the Jews returned to their temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated. The Jews wanted to rededicate their temple to God by lighting the seven-candle menorah, but they found that only a canister of ritually pure oil remained. Believing that the oil would only last for one day, they made a leap of faith and lit the menorah anyway. As if by a miracle, it remained illuminated not one night but eight.

So Hanukkah is really about two miracles: the victory of those ill-equipped fighters armed with little more than their faith, and the tiny bit of oil that lasted eight nights. (However, a few thousand years ago, rabbis made a deliberate, ideological choice to focus on oil and place less emphasis on military victory, a choice declared by The Conversation in 2017).

Jews recreate the miracle of oil every year by lighting candles for eight consecutive nights. We always start with lighting the Shammash – the helper or servant candle – and then we use this to light the others.

The first night we light one candle with the Shammash, the second night two, and so on, until all eight are on fire the last night.

As with other holidays, there are unique prayers for Hanukkah. And many Jews also sing “Maoz Tzur” or “Rock of Ages”, a liturgical poem believed to have been written in the 12th or 13th century in Europe amid another wave of violence: the Crusades.

Oh, and as already mentioned, we also fry a lot of delicious things!

More fun facts about Hanukkah

In America, many Jews mistakenly say that we light a “menorah” during Hanukkah. But the word menorah actually refers to the seven-armed candelabra that was used in the temple in Jerusalem and which is a symbol of both Judaism and the State of Israel.

The thing we light for the holidays is actually a Hanukkie that contains nine candles: eight for the eight nights and then the ninth, the Shammash, which is used to light the others. The Shammash is said to be different from the other candles; it is usually positioned higher than the rest.

Traditionally, the lighted Hannukia is proudly displayed in a window and serves as a reminder to both Jews and non-Jews that we are neither ashamed of our identities nor press to hide our heritage.

In recent years, several Jewish sects have brought the Hanukkah celebrations into their congregations with public candle-lighting ceremonies. These public ceremonies embody “the idea of ​​illuminating the darkness of the world around us with the light of God and the light of the Torah,” said Rabbi Benny Zippel of Salt Lake City.

Jews often play dreidel during Hanukkah. A different Hebrew letter is emblazoned on each side of the four-sided top, although the letters vary slightly depending on whether you are in Israel or abroad.

Abroad, the four letters are now, gimmel, hey and shin, a sequence that should stand for “nes gadol haya sham”, which translates as “a great miracle happened there”.

In Israel, three of the four letters on the dreidel are the same, but the last one is different. An Israeli Dreidel reads Nun, Gimmel, Hey and Peh, which supposedly stands for “nes gadol haya poh”, “A great miracle has happened here”.

A time to rededicate our homes and ourselves to God

While you think about letters and words, let’s talk about the name of the holiday. The word Hanukkah, which is also spelled Hanukkah, means “devotion”. Hebrew speakers will tell you that the word has the same three-letter root as the word for “education.” (This connection is not lost even with rabbis). And this linguistic game can go in many directions.

Here’s one: You can think of the holiday as an opportunity for the Jewish community to educate themselves and dedicate themselves to the continued growth that comes from education – a worthy lesson for Jews and non-Jews alike.

Given that Hanukkah is celebrated at home, a place called mikdash me’at in Judaism, a small sanctuary, the holiday can also serve as a reminder to rededicate your individual temples – your life, yours Actions and words – to God.

Chag Hanukkah Samach! Happy Hanukkah Holidays!

(Enjoy the fried foods – you can take care of your waistline when it’s over.)

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