What is Hanukkah?

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Girl watching menorah
A young Jewish girl watches the candles of the menorah burn on Hanukkah
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Hanukkah is a holiday that is rich with meaning and history.

When I was a kid and I heard someone say "Happy Holidays," I thought the holidays in question were simply Christmas and New Year's. But saying "Happy Holidays" is a way to respect people of different faiths. The phrase includes Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. My family celebrates Christmas, and so I am left wondering about the other holidays. What do I say when my kids ask, "What is Hanukkah?"

Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, and is celebrated by those of the Jewish faith. According to the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the month Kislev and ends on the 2nd day of Tevet. This means the eight-day festival occurs either at the end of November or during the month of December.

The name Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew word that means "dedication." It is a time when Jews celebrate what they call "the miracle of the oil," which is also symbolic of the Jewish nation's survival over thousands of years of trials and persecution.


In order to understand Hanukkah, we need to know a little of Israel's history. In 200 BCE, the king of Syria controlled Israel. Jews paid taxes to Syria, but they were otherwise free to live and worship as they desired. In 175 BCE, Antiochus IV took the throne of Syria. He changed the policy concerning Israel, and during his reign the Temple in Jerusalem was looted, Judaism was outlawed and many Jews were killed.

Unfortunately for Antiochus, this stirred up a passionate rebellion among the Jews. A Jewish priest named Mattathias led the revolt. When Mattathias died, his son Judah took over as leader. He was known as Judah the Hammer, or Judah Maccabee.

By 165 BCE, the rebellion had successfully driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, and the Temple, which had been used by the Syrians in the worship of Zeus, was rededicated. There was only one consecrated container of oil left in the Temple, enough to keep the eternal flame alight for one day. Miraculously, the oil kept the flame burning for eight days, which was exactly how long it took for more olive oil to be pressed, prepared and consecrated. An eight-day festival was declared to celebrate the miracle.

Modern Day Celebration

Today, Jewish families around the world celebrate Hanukkah. In Israel, schools are closed during the festival. A menorah, or branched candelabra, is used to hold nine candles. The center candle is higher, with four lower candles on each side. The higher candle is the shamash, or servant candle. It is needed because the eight Hanukkah candles are not to be used for anything but remembering the Hanukkah miracle. If light is needed for any other purpose, the shamash can be used.

On the first night of Hanukkah, the shamash and one other candle are lit. Each night following, one more candle is lit, so that by the eighth night, all nine candles are aglow. Unless it is dangerous to do so, the menorah should be displayed in a window so that people passing by are reminded of the miracle. The candles should burn for at least half an hour after sunset. During World War II, the candles were hidden from public view to keep the family safe from the Nazis.

Before the candles are lit each night, special blessings are recited that praise God for His commandments, for the miracle of the oil, and for keeping and sustaining the Jews. After the candle lighting, a prayer is recited, and sometimes the family sings a hymn.

There are special foods, songs and games that are associated with Hanukkah. Some families eat potato pancakes (latkes) and fruit-filled donuts fried in oil. Many families play a game with the dreidel, a spinning top with Hebrew letters on each side. Hanukkah gelt, the Yiddish word for money, is given to children during the festival. In order to keep Jewish children from feeling left out during the Christmas season, many Jewish-American families will give gifts during Hanukkah.

The United States is rich with so many cultures and faiths, and understanding them can help make us better citizens. The next time I hear the question "What is Hanukkah?" I will be ready with my answer.

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