The Tradition of Hanukkah

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: History

  • Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday that celebrates the rededication of the temple at the time of the Maccabees (ca. 164 BCE).
  • Hanukkah can also be spelled Chanukah.  In Hebrew, it is pronounced with the letter ‘chet,’ which has a guttural sound like the ‘ch’ in Bach.  Since the ‘h’ is the closest English equivalent, many people write it with an ‘H’, others with ‘ch’.  Either spelling is pronounced the same way and has the same meaning.
  • The word itself means “dedication” or “induction.”  The word can also be divided into ‘Chanu,’ meaning “they rested,” and ‘kah,’ which has a numerical value of 25.  In short, on the 25th day of Kislev, the Maccabees rested and then restored the Temple in Jerusalem.
  • The date of Hanukkah changes every year because the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle.  Hanukkah can occur anytime between November 28th and December 26th.  This year it begins at sundown on December 11th.   Hanukkah always lasts for eight days.
  • Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights.
  • This is derived from the story that when the Maccabees rescued the Temple from the Greeks (Antiochus IV), they could only find one small cruse of oil that bore the seal of the priests.  All of the others had been profaned by the Greeks.
  • There should only have been enough oil in that cruse to light the menorah for one day.  Instead it lasted eight days and nights – long enough for the priests to press, prepare, and consecrate new oil.
  • Because of that story, Jews celebrate Hanukkah by serving foods fried in oil.
  • Latkes, fried potato pancakes, and deep-fried donuts are generally on the menu.
  • Many Jews also eat dairy products in honor of Judith (the apocryphal story) who seduced the Assyrian general with cheese and wine.  When he fell into a drunken stupor, she beheaded him and thereby saved her entire village.
  • Hanukkah is also an acronym for “eight candles as determined by the House of Hillel.”  Apparently, the schools of Shammai and Hillel could not agree on the proper way to light the menorah.  Shammai wanted all eight candles to burn from the beginning.  Hillel said they should start with one and add a candle each night.  Modern Jews follow Hillel’s method.
  • The Menorah is a candelabrum with nine candles.  Eight are of the same size and all of the same height.  The ninth is either higher or lower than the eight.  It is the candle that is used to light all the others and is sometimes referred to as the “servant” candle.  It is forbidden to do anything with the eight other than look at them.  When the Menorah is lit, it should be placed in a window for all to see.
  • The first candle to be lit is on the far right of the candelabrum.  The next night the candle to the left of the first one is lit first.  This is repeated each night.  So lights are added from right to left, but candles are lit from left to right.
  • Children oftentimes play with a four-sided top known as a dreidel.
  • Each side of the dreidel has a Hebrew letter -- ‘N G H S.’ This is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase, “A great miracle happened there.”
  • It is believed the history of the game dates back to the time of the Greeks when it was illegal to study Torah.  Jews would gather to study, but could quickly hide their scrolls and spin tops if Greek soldiers happened by. 
  • Needless to say, this is a joyous festival and specific prayers are offered in praise and thanksgiving to God.
  • There is no significance to the colors (blue and white) commonly used for Hanukkah candles.  The only requirement is that the candles burn for ½ an hour after they are lit.  (On Fridays, they have to be lit before the Sabbath, so those candles need to burn for 1 ½ hours.)

Bible Characters