Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of
lights, is an eight-day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month
Chanukkah is probably one of the best-known Jewish holidays, not because of
any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas.
Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as
the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as
elaborate gift giving and decoration. It is ironic that this holiday, which has its
roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of the Jewish
religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on the Jewish
The Story of Chanukkah
The story of Chanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great.
Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under
his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain
degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews
assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs
and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America
today blend into the secular American society.
More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in
control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a
Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of
the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of
pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a
basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son
Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim,
the forerunners of the Pharisees (no direct connection to the modern
movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both
the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek
government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the
rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the
Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which
was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only
enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the
time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight-day
festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday
commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not
Chanukkah is not a very important religious holiday. The holiday's religious
significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot,
Passover, and Shavu'ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and
you won't find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim! Chanukkah is
not mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of
Maccabbees, which Jews do not accept as scripture.
The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles.
The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or sometimes
called a chanukiah) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a
shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is
placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three berakhot
(blessings) are recited: l'hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah
nisim (a prayer thanking God for performing miracles for our ancestors at
this time), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking God for allowing us
to reach this time of year). After reciting the blessings, the first candle is
then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its
holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of
Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew
language). Candles are lit from left to right paying honor to the newer thing
first. On the eighth night, all nine candles (the 8 Chanukkah candles and the
shammus) are lit.
Why the shammus candle? The Chanukkah candles are for pleasure only;
they are not allowed to use them for any productive purpose. Jews always
keep an extra one around (the shammus), so that if a candle is needed for
some purpose, they do not accidentally use the Chanukkah candles. The
shammus candle is at a different height so that it is easily identified as the
It is traditional to eat fried foods on Chanukkah because of the significance
of oil to the holiday. Among Ashkenazic Jews, this usually includes latkes
(pronounced "lot-kuhs" or "lot-keys" depending on where their grandmother
comes from. Pronounced "potato pancakes" if you are a goy).
Gift giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in
places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians, as a way of dealing
with their children's jealousy of Christian friends. It is extremely unusual for
Jews to give Chanukkah gifts to anyone other than their own young children.
The only traditional gift of the holiday is "gelt," small amounts of money.
Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played
with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or
chocolate coins. The traditional explanation of this game is that during the
time of Antiochus' oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal
activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a
common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight.
A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimmel, Heh and Shin.
These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham", a great
miracle happened there, referring to the miracle of the oil.
The letters also stand for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb
(half) and shtell (put), which are the rules of the game! There are some
variations in the way people play the game, but traditionally everyone puts in
one coin. A person spins the dreidel. On Nun, nothing happens; on Gimmel
(or, as we called it as kids, "gimme!"), you get the whole pot; on Heh, you get
half of the pot; and on Shin, you put one in. When the pot is empty,
everybody puts one in. Keep playing until one person has everything and then
divide it, because nobody likes a poor winner.