Hanukkah, also known as the “Festival of Lights,” begins this evening. Ask anybody who is not Jewish to name a Jewish holiday, and most people will say Hanukkah. The funny thing is, it’s not a super-important holiday in a Judaic sense. Passover and Yom Kippur are much more important religious holidays. That said, Hanukkah has taken on a special significance in Western culture because of its close proximity to Christmas. While some might be tempted to call Hanukkah the “Jewish Christmas,” it has nothing to do with the Christian holiday. Historically the events of Hanukkah occurred before Jesus was born, and the origins of the Hanukkah story are very different than the Christmas story.
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem. In the 2nd century BCE, the tyrannical Greek King of Syria outlawed Judaism and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. In 168 BCE, the king desecrated the Jewish holy Temple and dedicated it to the Greek god Zeus. A small Jewish rebel army revolted and against all odds were eventually able to reclaim the Temple from the Greeks.
After they took back the Temple, the Jews had to repair and purify the building before they could rededicate it. This proved problematic, as they only had one night’s supply of oil for light. Miraculously, that one night’s oil burned for eight consecutive nights. This is why we light a candle on the menorah (Hanukkiah) every night during Hanukkah. It’s also why we eat foods fried in oil, like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (fried jelly doughnuts).
The menorah oil is not the only miracle of Hanukkah. The fact that a small group of Jewish renegades stood up to the Greek army– and won– is in itself miraculous. It reminds me an essay called “Concerning the Jews” written by Mark Twain for Harper’s Magazine in September 1899. In the essay, he refers to the historical resilience of the Jewish people:
The Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was; exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. - Mark Twain
Hanukkah always begins on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, but the date on our Gregorian calendar varies greatly from year to year. The 25th of Kislev begins when the sun sets on the evening before the day of celebration. This means that while the 25th of Kislev falls on December 2 this year, we light the first candle of Hanukkah this evening just after the sun sets.
Here are some fun Hanukkah facts to kick off our eight night holiday celebration!
FASCINATING HANUKKAH FACTS
- The story of Hanukkah is not directly mentioned in the Torah. The events that are celebrated on Hanukkah actually occurred during the 2nd century, after the Torah was written.
- While Hanukkah falls somewhat “early” this year (just a few days after Thanksgiving), this is not the earliest it’s ever been. In decades past it has happened as early as November 27 (in the year 1899). It can also happen much later and closer to Christmas. In fact, in 1978 the first evening of Hanukkah fell on December 24– Christmas Eve– and the first day of Hanukkah actually fell on Christmas Day. So as you can see, the Gregorian calendar date varies widely from year to year.
- The proper name for the 9-branched candelabra that holds the Hanukkah candles is Hanukkiah, but it is also widely referred to by Jews as a menorah. Menorah is also the name for the 7-branched candelabra that is lit during Jewish Temple services.
- A special candle called a Shamash is used to light the other candles on the menorah. I find it fascinating that Shamash is very similar to the Hebrew word shemesh, which means sun… both a candle and sun give light. Interestingly, the Babylonian sun god was named Shamash, and the Canaanite sun goddess was named Shapash. The caretaker of a synagogue is also called a Shamash.
- Hanukkah “gelt” refers to small amounts of money given to Jewish children during Hanukkah. Nowadays, exchanging Hanukkah gelt usually means giving chocolate coins wrapped in shiny foil. This tradition began in the 1920′s, when an American candy company called Loft’s produced the first chocolate gelt coins.
- Gift exchange is not traditionally a part of the Hanukkah holiday. In the late 1800′s, when Hanukkah gained popularity in the United States, some Jewish families began to exchange gifts. Now among many American Jewish families it is customary to give eight small gifts during Hanukkah– one for each night the candle is lit.
- Jewish children enjoy playing with a four-sided spinning top known as a dreidel during Hanukkah. Each side of the dreidel features a Hebrew letter: nun, gimel, hei, and shin. The letters stand for the Hebrew phrase, Nes Gadol Haya Sham– which means “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the dreidel is called a Sevivon and it looks slightly different. The fourth side of the sevivon is printed with the letter pei instead of shin, which changes the acronym to Nes Gadol Haya Po– “A great miracle happened here.”
- In remembrance of the miracle of the Temple oil, Hanukkah meals traditionally feature lots of fried foods, like latkes. That’s right, Hanukkah is an excuse to eat a bunch of yummy fried stuff. How great is that??
For more on Hanukkah, check out the following links: