Hanukkah 2,500 years ago was like any other holiday: praising God and sacrificing animals. When did marking the holiday with fire begin?
HanukkahDecember Illustration: Masha Manapov
What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah (the "Festival of Lights") commemorates the victory of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Greek rulers of the Land of Israel in the second century B.C.E. Traditionally, the eight-day holiday, whose name means “dedication” marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled by the invaders. Tradition has it that upon entering the Temple, the victorious army of the Maccabees found only a single jar of kosher oil with which to light the Menorah (candelabra)—enough for one day. By a miracle, the oil lasted eight days.
The holiday is not mentioned in the Bible, but does appear in the Apocrypha. The First Book of Maccabees instructs the Jewish community to celebrate the rededication for eight days. The Second Book of Maccabees tells us the holiday was celebrated as a second Sukkot (the "Festival of Booths") which was not celebrated that year due to the war.
When is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev (around mid-December) and lasts for eight days.
It begins on the evening and ends on the evening of the following dates:
Hanukkah 2015 – December 6 – December 14
Hanukkah 2016 – December 24 – January 1
Hanukkah 2017 – December 12 – December 20
Hanukkah 2018 – December 2 – December 10
Hanukkah 2019 – December 22 – December 30
How do we observe Hanukkah?
The primary observance of Hanukkah is the lighting of the eight-branched candelabrum, the Hanukkiah. Thus Hanukkah is often called the "Festival of Lights." Each night an additional candle is lit, until, on the last night, the candelabrum is fully illuminated. It is a mitzvah (commandment) to place the Hanukkiah on the threshold of the home, so that it can be seen by passers-by, but a window will do as well. The lighting of the Hanukkiah is accompanied by special blessings and songs, including the haunting song, Maoz Tzur, which is the origin of the hymn, “Rock of Ages.”
A special game of chance played by children on the holiday involves a spinning top, called a dreidel, or in Hebrew, sevivon. Many families also have the tradition of giving children Hanukkah gelt (gold), though more often than not, this takes the form of chocolate coins—not a bad exchange rate!
Since Hanukkah has traditionally fallen close to Christmas, children have often looked enviously out the window at their neighbors' trees. The convergence of the two holidays has come to be known by the moniker Chrismukkah.
Hanukkah was not originally a religious holiday, and so creative work is allowed. However, several special prayers were composed for the holiday. One is Al Hanisim ("For the miracles") a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the miracles he had bestowed on his people, which is added to the daily prayers.
What do we eat on Hanukkah?
It’s traditional to eat foods fried in oil on Hanukkah, in commemoration of the miracle of the oil. These include latkes, a type of potato pancake, and deep-fried donuts, called sufganiyot. While sufganiyot are a typically Israeli treat, Jewish communities in the United States and elsewhere are finding this tradition increasingly delicious!
Some communities have a tradition of eating dairy foods on Hanukkah, in honor of the heroine Judith, who infiltrated the enemy camp and killed a Greek general; it’s said that she ate only dairy while in hostile territory to avoid non-kosher meat.
The ancient Israelites, led by Judas Maccabeus, did vanquish the oppressor Antiochus - but Greek rule would only be shaken off 20 years later under Judas' younger brother. A must-read before the holiday begins.
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