The Rituals of Hanukkah

Like most Jewish holidays, Hanukkah has a certain number of rituals which help to symbolize the importance of the eight days of the “Festival of Light.” Of these rituals, some of them are community-based, while others are performed at home with the family. Although Hanukkah is not a religious holiday like Purim or Rosh Hashanah, some rituals do include the adding of extra prayers to the daily prayer practice, plus an additional prayer is often added to after-meal blessings.

Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah is not considered a “Sabbath-like” holiday. So, people still venture to work and enjoy everyday activities. However, most family members arrive home early in the evening to be present for the lighting of the Menorah as the sun sets. In Israel though, it is not uncommon for schools to close the entire eight days of Hanukkah.

The Lighting of the Menorah

The Menorah is the singular image that comes to mind when one thinks about Hanukkah. The Menorah is a candelabrum comprised of nine candle holders. Usually, there are four candles branched out to the left and four to the right, with a ninth one, the Shamash in the middle. The Shamash is the first candle lit as it is used as a reminder that the Menorah’s candles are used to signify the Miracle of the Oil, and not to be used for general purposes.

In some families, it is tradition to light the Shamash candle first, and then use it to light the others, at a rate of one per night, starting with the candle to the extreme right and moving left. So, in essence, the first night has both the Shamash and the first candle lit, the second night has three candles lit and so on.

The Menorah candles are to be lit at sundown and burn for one half hour. However, on Friday night, the candles need to be lit before the start of Shabbat.

The Blessing of the Candles

Each night, prior to lighting the Menorah candles, there are two blessings which are recited. Only on the first night of Hanukkah is a third blessing added. The three blessings are usually as follows:

"Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights." – This blessing is only recited on the first night of Hanukkah.

"Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors, in those days, at this season." – This blessing is recited all eight nights.

"Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us in life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season." – This blessing is recited each night as well.

Once the candles are lit, and the blessings performed, the prayer, “Hanerot Halalu” is then recited. It is generally as follows:

"We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make them serve except for to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations."

The Singing of Ma’oz Tzur

Lastly, after the previous Hanukkah rituals are finished, the singing of Ma’oz Tzur is performed. The song features six full stanzas, but only the first and the last are generally sung at Hanukkah as they are the only two that mention the joy of Hanukkah.

Some traditions, particularly in Hasidic and Sephardic families include the recitation of Psalms 30, 67 and 91. Many Hassidim repeat Psalm 91 seven times in a row.

Zot Hanukkah

The final day of Hanukkah is known as “Zot Hanukkah.” This is considered the final seal of the season of Yom Kippur and the Jewish community is taught to repent out of the love for God. During this day, Hassidic Jews greet each other with "Gmar chatimah tovah", which translates to, "may you be sealed totally for good."

For more information about Hanukkah’s significance and special treats, enjoy our accompanying articles about the holiday’s special foods, games and songs.

Dave Donovan is a freelance copywriter living in Atco, N.J. An electrician for 15 years, an injury forced him to pursue his true passion - writing.