Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah… amongst other spellings!) is a Jewish holiday that takes place in December. Because the Jewish holidays follow the lunar calendar, the date shifts between early and late December. Traditionally a relatively minor holiday, with the commercialization of Christmas, Hanukkah has been revived as the Jewish gift-giving holiday. Even today, it is more widely celebrated amongst Ashkenazi communities (Jews of Eastern European origin) than Sephardi ones (the Jewish diaspora expelled from Spain in 1492).
The biblical King Solomon oversaw the construction of the First Temple as a place to house the Ark of the Covenant (between the Jewish people and G-d). Mount Moriah was chosen as the site of the Temple because it was thought to be where Abraham had built the altar on which to sacrifice his son Isaac. The Temple was completed in 957 BCE (Before Common Era, aka BC). It stood for over 350 years before being destroyed by the Babylonians.
Under Cyrus II, the exiled Jews of Babylonia returned to Jerusalem, rebuilding the Temple and completing it in 515 BCE. Under Persian and Hellenistic rule of Jerusalem in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, the Temple was generally respected. Note, what is currently left of it is the Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.
The story of Hanukkah
In 168 BCE, however, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes prohibited Jewish religious practices and defiled the Temple by building an altar to Zeus. This triggered the Hasmonean Revolt against Jewish persecution, led by Judas Maccabee and his tribe.
When the Maccabees regained control of the temple, they cleansed it and restored it. But when they went to light the menorah (one of the most important ritual objects in the Temple), they saw that they only had enough oil for one day. Miraculously, though, the oil burned for eight days, the basis of this 8-day festivity.
The Hanukkiah or Hanukkah Menorah
The most publicly recognized symbol of Hanukkah is the Hanukkiah, an 8+1 armed candelabra. Families will gather to light the candles, one on the first night, two on the second, etc, over the eight days of Hanukkah. The +1 candle is the shamash, or the helper candle which is used to light the other candles.
In cities with a significant number of Jews, it has become commonplace to have oversized Hanukkah menorahs prominently displayed, usually as a counterpoint to Christmas decorations. This has helped give Hanukkah more prominence both for folks within and outside the Jewish community.
A popular Hanukkah game is dreidel, a 4-sided top inscribed with the Hebrew letters of nun, gimmel, hay and shin for “Nes gadol haya sham” which means “A great miracle happened there.”
Fun fact: in Israel, the shin is replaced with a pay for “poh” which means “here”, i.e. “A great miracle happened here.”
Depending on the letter you land on when you spin the dreidel, you receive or put in a certain amount of Hanukkah gelt (chocolate gold coins) from the pot.
As with all Jewish holidays, food plays an important part. Because the holiday centers around the miracle of the oil burning for 8 days, fried and oily foods get special prominence.
Aside from brands trying to turn Hanukkah into a gift-giving holiday and Hanukkah menorahs gaining more visibility in large cities, the holiday has garnered prominence, especially in the US since Adam Sandler’s hit Hanukkah Song on Saturday Night Live in 1994.
For a more kid-friendly cultural artifact, check out Shalom Sesame’s episode on Chanukah complete with Sesame Street muppets and learning opportunities.
The American Jewish World Service offers great resources for how to incorporate a social justice angle into Jewish holidays. For Hanukkah, they offer readings to reflect on each night during the candle lighting. Check out their Chanukah Readings and other resources.
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