What is Hanukkah?
December 23, 2016
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Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights, is a Jewish holiday. On the Gregorian calendar, which is also the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev (the name of the month) and lasts for eight days. This year, Hanukkah will begin on December 24 and ends on January 1. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the second temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by Greek soldiers. The menorah of the temple had to be kept burning at all times to symbolizes God’s presence. The flames were kept burning by oil, which in those days took eight days to make. However, when the Maccabees (after successfully revolting against the Greek soldiers) cleaned the temple, they only found enough oil to last for one day. The rest had been destroyed. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the small amount of oil lasted for eight days.
A Hanukkiah is the official term for the candle holder that allows for eight candles in addition to the shamash. A traditional menorah only has seven branches. Regardless, the Hanukkiah is almost always referred to as a menorah. Candles are added to the menorah from right to left and are lit from left to right. The candle used to light the other candle is called a shamash and must be noticeably different from the other candles on the menorah. In order for the menorah to be considered kosher (allowed for ritual use) the shamash is placed at a different height than the other candles.
Traditional Hanukkah foods like latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly donuts are fried in oil as a reminder of the oil that lasted for eight days. The dreidel is another popular fixture at Hanukkah. A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with different hebrew letters on each side. The letters are נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hey), ש (Shin). These letters are an acronym for נס גדול היה שם” (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham) which means “A great miracle happened there”. Dreidels are used in a game where the players gamble for gelt (chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil). The number the dreidel lands on dicates what happens for that turn.
Hanukkah, especially in America, has become much more like Christmas. Often, there will be a reenactment of the story of Hanukkah at Jewish Day Schools or at synagogue similar to Christmas pageants retelling the story of the birth of Jesus. Another similarity is the tradition of giving gifts on Hanukkah. This tradition began partly because of companies wanting to make more money and partly because of parents wanting to make sure that their kids didn’t feel left out. Hanukkah is a holiday where families come together to spend time with each other. Like most Jewish holidays (aside from Yom Kippur) there is a lot a focus on food. The entire house smells like latkes for days afterwards.