What Is Hanukkah? Jewish Festival Of Lights Explained


Hanukkah (or spelled Chanukah), the Jewish festival of lights, is set to begin at sundown on Dec. 18 and conclude at sundown on Dec. 26. Due to the holiday taking place near Christmas and Kwanzaa, Hanukkah is among the most well-known Jewish holidays in the world.

Outside of Hanukkah’s unique timing, traditions, and historical significance, it is among a handful of Jewish holidays that has no mention in the five books of the Torah.

But what does Hanukkah commemorate? Here is an explanation of the history and customs of the holiday.

Maccabean revolt
Hanukkah commemorates the historical event called the Maccabean Revolt, which took place from 167 BCE to 160 BCE, and was a Jewish revolt against imperialism in pursuing religious freedom in Judea. One year before the revolt began, the King of the Greek Seleucid Empire, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, began to outlaw and suppress the practice of Judaism in Judea.

Among Antiochus’ laws enacted during his rule were the prohibition of studying the Torah, the desecration of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by replacing Jewish practice in the Holy Temple with Hellenistic practice, and the placing of the statue of Zeus in the sanctuary.

In 167 BCE, The Temple Priest Matityahu and his son Judas Maccabeus led a group of Jewish fighters that eventually formed into a guerilla army, known as the Maccabees, to revolt against Antiochus and the Seleucid Empire.

In 164 BCE, the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and rededicated the Second Temple for Jewish practice, including cleansing of the holy altar and relighting of the Holy Temple’s menorah. The win and rededication of the temple is the major historical event commemorated on Hanukkah, which means “Dedication.”

The Jewish guerrilla resistance continued for 19 years and Judea regained independence from the Seleucid Empire in 141 BCE, when the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty was established. The account of the Maccabean revolt is written in the two ancient Books of Maccabees.

Significance of Menorah lighting

The main custom of the holiday of Hanukkah is to light a chanukkiah (a candelabrum with nine branches) for eight days, adding one candle each night until all are lit on the eighth day of the holiday.

Written in the script of the Torah are intricate instructions on the lighting of a menorah by Jewish priests in the Holy Temple. The temple’s menorah was a seven-branched candelabrum that had to be filled with pure olive oil and lit every day.

In the rabbinic book called the Talmud, a discussion is written between rabbis over Hanukkah, with the text stating that the Seleucid soldiers defiled all the olive oil in The Temple when Antiochus ordered the capture of Jerusalem. When the Maccabees recaptured The Temple, they found only one pot of pure olive oil to light the menorah, which would only last for one day.

Instead, the menorah’s light lasted for eight days, allowing the Maccabees enough time to make more pure olive oil. The rabbis in the Talmud declared it a “miracle.” Hanukkah was then instituted as an eight-day holiday with the lightning of a chanukkiah, which has eight branches plus a middle candle — called a “Shamash,” which means helper — serving as the one to light each of the other candles.

The other main difference between a menorah and chanukkiah is the middle candleholder is either higher or off to one side. In contrast, the seven branches of a menorah are at equal height. Traditionally, the chanukkiah is placed in the window when lit to advertise the magnitude of the miracle.

Customs, rituals, and traditional foods

Outside of lighting a chanukkiah each night, Hanukkah has many traditions and customs that Jewish families worldwide practice to add festivity to the holiday.

The most popular among them is playing with a dreidel, a spinning top with four Hebrew letters used to mimic a gambling game played by Jewish people in the Seleucid Empire. An oral tradition that has been passed for generations states that Jewish men would illegally study Torah during Antiochus’ reign. When an officer came to inspect them, they would quickly conceal their study by bringing out a dreidel, pretending that they were gambling.

Instead of gambling money, today’s families will play dreidel with chocolate coins covered with gold wrapping. These coins are called “gelt.”

Gelt is one of the three most well-known foods made for the holiday, along with potato pancakes known as latkes and jelly-filled fried doughnuts known as Sufganiyot in Hebrew. These and other foods fried in oil are customarily eaten on Hanukkah to symbolize the miracle of the menorah’s oil lasting for eight days.

Traditionally, gift-giving on the holiday is not a common practice around the world. However, in the United States, parents and grandparents often give small presents to younger children every night of the holiday.