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Celebrating Hanukkah:A historical & how-to guide

11/30/2023 08:28:20 AM


Lara Giordano


What is Hanukkah?

Hannukah, also known as the "Festival of Lights," is a commemorative holiday marking the victory of the Maccabees over the forces of the Seleucid King Antiochus and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem on Kislev 25, 164 BCE. According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, the small quantity of oil used to light the Temple’s menorah miraculously lasted eight days.

The Historical Origins of Hanukkah

The historical setting of Hanukkah is 2000 years ago in Greek-controlled Palestine. Here, Jews had achieved political autonomy even as they were without control of political land. This was until the reign of Antiochus IV. With ambitions to conquer Egypt and in pursuit of greater political control, Antiochus sought to unify the disparate social, cultural, and religious elements that existed within his territory. In 167 B.C.E. Aniochus went so far as to defile the Temple in Jerusalem and ban Jewish practice. The Maccabees revolted against this campaign of enforced Hellenization and, led by the five sons of the priest Mattathias, themselves waged a three-year campaign that culminated in the cleaning and rededication of the Temple.


Literary Sources

Hanukkah is one of the few Jewish holidays (including Purim) that is not mentioned in the Bible. Rather Hanukkah appears in the apocrypha and was elevated to its status as a holiday by the Talmudic Rabbis. In this historical episode, the Rabbis of the Talmud read the makings of a triumphant tale of Jewish perseverance in the face of cultural totalitarianism, hence an occasion for collective praise and thanksgiving.

How to Celebrate Hanukkah

The defining act of Hanukkah is the public kindling of the lights of the Hanukkiyah, one candle for each of eight nights. This act is meant to be public insofar as this is a holiday in which light serves as a metaphor for spiritual freedom. If safe, it is customary to place the Hanukkiyah at a window or door as a public declaration.

Light the candles
Hanukkah candles are lit after sunset and are meant to burn at least a half hour after night falls. The exception to this rule is on Shabbat in keeping with the prohibition against kindling fire: on Frriday, the candles must be lit before sunset and, on Saturday night, the lighting of the Hanukkiyah waits until after nightfall. 

Because each candle lit fulfills a religious obligation, the candles are not meant to be pressed into the utilitarian service of lighting other candles. Hence, a special helper (or shamash) candle is designated. The shamash constitutes a ninth candle elevated above the others. The candles are meant to be placed right to left as Hebrew is written, but, conversely, lit left to right. 

Say the Blessings
Each night, two blessings are recited:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.

(Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.)


Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, she-asah nisim laavoteinu v’imoteinu bayamim hahaeim baz’man hazeh.

(Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wonderous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.)


Activities & Special Foods

The first hour after the candles are lit is a special time, reserved for family learning and discussion, game-playing, and gift-giving. 

Of course, spinning the dreidel is the game most intimately associated with Hanukkah. This is because of the apocryphal tale that during the time of Antiochus’ reign, Jews would pretend to play dreidel when they were engaged in Torah study/prayer to avoid detection. On the dreidel it is inscribed “nun," "gimel," "hey," "sham” which respectively stand for “nes," "gadol," "hayah," "shin"  - or “A great miracle happened there.”

It is customary to prepare latkes (Ashkenazi) or sufganiyot (Sephardim), both specialty foods filling the house with the smells and tastes of oil and reminding us of the miracle of the oil that burned for eight nights.

Hanukkah: the Jewish Xmas?
While not necessarily the case elsewhere, in the U.S., Hanukkah serves as a gift-giving holiday because of its proximity to Christmas.


But what is Hanukkah Really?

There's more to learn you say? Yes! Thank you, Hashem, for the rich complexity of Jewish tradition.

For those who wish to dig deeper, check out this "On the Media" interview (and one of my favorite podcasts) featuring Rabbi James Ponet. It’s from 2018, but couldn't be more relevant to our circumstances today. In his conversation with Brooke Gladstone, Rabbi Ponet argues that Hanukkah stands as the "most complex and adult of our holidays," secreting beneath its current childlike demeanor a deep and abiding schism in the Jewish psyche.

What often gets obscured in the mythical recitation of this holiday is that the Maccabees waged war not just against the Syrian-Greek empire, but, moreover, against Jews who were themselves in support of and actively pursuing assimilationist policies. Beneath the triumphal fable of the oil that burned for eight nights is the reality of a Jewish civil war over the perennial issue of whether to become a part of larger society or to preserve Jewish uniqueness in our separateness. 

As Rabbi James points out, these two conflicting impulses - the one toward assimilation and to separateness - are abiding features of Jewish life, something that is perspicuously (and ironically) on display in the American transformation of the holiday of Hanukkah into Xmas’s sidekick. 

Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784