Religious Observances: Hanukkah

Even those unfamiliar with Jewish religious practices are familiar with Hanukkah. Hanukkah is the “Festival of Lights,” and it is celebrated with the help of a nine-branched menorah. Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, and usually falls in November or December.

Origins of Hanukkah

Interestingly, Hanukkah is not one of the celebrations found in the Hebrew Bible. This is because the festival traces its origins to 200 B.C.E., during a revolt against the Greek-Syrian rulers of that time. Hanukkah was added to the schedule of holiday observances after the successful revolt that freed Judea from its conquerors.

When first conquered, the new leaders of Judea were tolerant of the religious practices and customs of the Jews. However, once the tolerant Antiochus III was dead, things changed. His son was not nearly so understanding, and the result included laws outlawing Jewish religious practices, as well as a move to slaughter pigs in the temple at Jerusalem and building an altar to Zeus within its walls.

The high priest at the time, Mattathias, had a fiery son, Judah Maccabee, who, along with  his four brothers, led the people in an uprising. Over the course of three years, the Maccabean rebellion managed to push the conquerors out. The temple was cleansed and rededicated. (Hanukkah means “dedication.”) Soon a holiday tradition grew up around the events.

The Origin of the Festival

There are alternate versions of how the festival came to be. In one version, recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, the consecrated olive oil meant to keep the lights in the temple candelabra burning all the time was almost out — there wasn’t enough to last more than a day. However, a miracle occurred, and oil lasted eight days, until a source of consecrated oil could be established.

Others speculate that the original reason for the festival revolves around the fact that as the revolt drew to its successful close, there had not been time to celebrate Sukkot. So, rather than overlook the festival, it was celebrated late, and the tradition held as a memorial for the victory.

How is Hanukkah Celebrated?

Ritual prayers are said, and the menorah is lit. The nine-branched menorah has one taller candle in the middle, and four tapers on either side. The middle candle, the “servent” or “helper” candle, is used to light the other candles. Each night another candle is lit. So, the first night, the middle candle lights one other candle, and on the second night there are two candles lit in addition to the middle candle. This continues until, on the eighth night, all the candles are lit.

During Hannukah, foods fried in oil are eaten, some of the most popular being donuts filled with jam and latkes (potato pancakes). A gambling game with a dreidel is popular, as well as the exchanging of gifts. There are no restrictions on work, however, or any other activity connecte with Hanukkah.

And how is Hanukkah spelled? Well, that is a matter of preference. Many spell it Chanukah, or use other variations. Because the word comes from a language that doesn’t use the same alphabet, it’s more about translating the idea of the word, and the sounds of the word, into a Western alphabet.


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