Festival of Lights

The holiday of Hanukkah

14.8 million. That is how many people will celebrate the festival of lights this year. Hanukkah is a special time for Jews, it is a time to remember a miracle that happened many, many years ago. The history of this holiday is one that is not well documented, unlike many other holidays that Jews celebrate, however, it is nonetheless a beautiful and fascinating tradition. 

In order to understand the origins of the festival of lights, we must first understand the time period. 

It is the year 200 B.C. and the Land of Israel is under the control of the king of Syria, Antiochus III. The king, at time of control, allowed the Jews who were already living there to continue practicing their religion. Later on however, the king’s son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, took control and chaos ensued. Antiochus IV at the time of his ruling, forced Jews to abandon their religion and only worship Greek entities. He forced them out of the Second Temple (a jewish place of worship at the time) and turned the temple into a shrine to Zeus. He sacrificed swine within the walls of the temple. A direct sacrilege according to the mean flaws of Judaism, Jews do not eat pork since it is not considered Kosher. 

It was not long before the Jews revolted against the malicious king. Judah Macabee led the rebellion against Antiochus IV Ephiphanes and within two years, the Jews had reclaimed the Second Temple and Jerusalem. When they arrived at the Temple, they discovered all of the olive oil used to light the menorah, a candelabra, had since been tainted by the once king Antiochus. The untainted olive oil they did find was only enough to keep the menorah lit for a single day, however, by a miracle, the oil lasted eight nights. This is why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights. 

The way Hanukkah is celebrated often varies from family to family, but the lighting of the menorah remains the centerpiece of each family tradition. The menorah is lit in a very special way. The first night the attendant candle is lit, and each night thereafter, the attendant is used to light the other candles in sequence, one each night, from left to right. 

It is not uncommon for households to play games like dreidel during the nights of Hanukkah. Dreidel is a game that involves play with a four sided spinner with Hebrew letters on each side. The letters are Shin, Gimmel, Nun and Hay. The way you play is fairly simple, to begin with all players start with a stash of something (it can be pennies, chocolate chips, anything) and at the beginning of the round each player puts one piece into the “pot” and depending on which letter the dreidel lands on during your turn, there a different actions you can take. If it lands on Nun, you take nothing. If it lands on Shin during your turn, you place one of your stash into the collective pot. If it lands on Hay, you take half, and if it lands on Gimel, you take all of the pot.

 It is also very common to give gifts to children during Hanukkah as part of the celebration. However, the giving of gifts for the holiday was not always a part of the traditions. It is more custom to give gelt during Hanukkah, gelt is a Yiddish word for money, but nowadays is more of a reference to chocolate coins. Giving gifts for Hanukkah grew in the late 19th century as the consumerism surrounding Christmas began to grow. Because Hanukkah and Christmas fall close to each other, it was not out of the realm of unusual that Hanukkah began to start taking on Christmas-like qualities as far as traditions goes. 

Hanukkah falls during different weeks every year, this is because the Hebrew calendar follows a 12 month lunar cycle. The months of the Hebrew calendar alternate between 29 and 30 days which make for a year of 355 days. Hanukkah usually takes place during the Hebrew month of Kislev starting on the 25th day. This means the holiday usually falls in late November or early-mid December in the calendar we use today. 

Hanukkah is a fun and fascinating winter holiday for Jews across the United States. There are many different traditions that encompass the holiday that make it engaging for kids and adults alike.