Hanukkah is one of the more popular Jewish holidays which is sometimes considered the “Jewish Christmas.” It gets the association to the Christian holiday simply because of the time of year that it is celebrated and it also includes traditions of gift giving. But that’s as far as the similarities go.
Whereas Christmas is a religious holiday for Christians, Hanukkah, sometimes spelled Chanukah, is not for Jews. In fact, most Jews continue to do their everyday chores and duties during the eight days of Hanukkah. Schools are not closed and people go to work each day. The holiday is a celebration of the “Miracle of the Oil,” which took place as the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple from the Greeks.
Although it’s not a religious holiday, there are plenty of rituals and prayers that are usually very strictly adhered to during Hanukkah. These include the lighting of the Menorah each night and the associated prayers and recitations that accompany it.
Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev and lasts for eight days. Kislev is the ninth month on the Hebrew calendar and depending on how it lands; Hanukkah can be celebrated anytime between late November and late December.
The Significance of the Food
During Hanukkah, it’s not uncommon to enjoy a deluge of deep-fried goodies like doughnuts, fritters and latkes. As a matter of fact, quite a bit of fried food is consumed during Hanukkah as a way to remember the Miracle of the Oil. In most families, olive oil is preferred as that was the oil used at the time of the miracle.
Another food which is enjoyed more often during Hanukkah is cheese and dairy products. This is to honor Judith, the woman who saved the city of Bethulia from the Assyrians. It is written that the widow Judith entered the camp of General Holofernes pretending to surrender. Captivated by her beauty, the general took her to his tent. Judith then fed the General plenty of salty cheeses, which he followed with a lot of wine. After he passed out drunk, Judith used the General’s own sword to remove his head. When his soldiers found his body, they soon lost their resolve and were easily disposed of. The remaining troops retreated and Bethulia was saved.
The Significance of the Menorah
The Menorah consists of eight candleholders, plus a ninth (the Shamash), which are to be lit one per night during the eight nights of Hanukkah. The Shamash is lit every night and stands to remind us that the Hanukkah candles are special and not to be used for anything other than the Menorah.
The reason for eight candles is to recognize the Miracle of the Oil in the Temple. When the Maccabees ousted the Greeks from the Temple, they only had enough oil left to burn for one night. Miraculously, that one night’s worth of oil burned for a full eight nights, enough time to harvest a new supply of oil.
The lighting of the Menorah is usually accompanied by three candle blessings, a recitation of the Hanerot Halalu prayer and the singing of Ma’oz Tzur.
The Significance of the Name “Hanukkah”
The name “Hanukkah” means different things depending on who you ask. Some scholars believe that the word means “to dedicate.” This theory is based on the Hebrew verb "חנך," and the fact that whenever a new house is built, a dedication ceremony is performed. In the case of Hanukkah, Jews are dedicating the reclamation of the Temple from the Greeks.
Others believe that the name comes from the Hebrew word for encampment, "חנו." With this theory, it is believed that the Jews rested from battle in their encampments on the 25th day of Kislev, which is when the celebration of Hanukkah begins.
Lastly, others believe that the word “Hanukkah” is an acronym for the Hebrew term, "ח' נרות והלכה כבית הלל," which means, “Eight candles as determined by the House of Hillel.” This comes from a disagreement between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, two rabbinical schools of thought. The House of Shammai believed that all eight of the Menorah candles should be lit on night number one and then decrease in number as the days progress. The House of Hillel believed that it should be the other way around. In the end, it was Hillel’s method which became the holiday’s custom.
To read more about Hanukkah’s rituals, foods, significance or games, be sure to check out our other articles related to the celebration of Hanukkah.
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.