Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday which celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the larger Syrian army. It also celebrates a miracle that happened during this time, where just one day’s supply of oil kept the menorah in the rededicated Temple in Jerusalem to remain lit for eight whole days!

That is why Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah for eight days.

Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which on the Gregorian (regular) calendar is late November or December. This year Hanukkah begins on Nov. 28 and ends on Dec. 6.

The Hebrew word hanukkah means rededication.

The hanukiah (or hanukkah menorah) is a candle holder, an important Hanukkah symbol. It has nine branches. Traditionally, one candle is separated from the rest, usually by being higher than the other eight.

On the first night, only one candle is lit, on the right side of the hanukkiah or menorah. On the second night, a second candle is added, and they are lit from left to right – but the Hanukkiah is filled from right to left. This continues for all eight nights.

The candles are never lit directly – instead, the higher candle, (called a shamash, meaning “attendant”) is lit first, and then used to light the rest of the candles. While the candles are lit, blessings are said over them.

Jewish children often play a game called dreidel. The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top, each side having a Hebrew letter. The four letters (nun, gimel, hey, shin) stand for the Hebrew phrase, “Nes gadol haya shaam,” meaning, “A great miracle happened there.”

In Israel, by contrast, the dreidel reads “Po” instead of “shaam,” meaning “here.” So, in Israel the phrase is, “a great miracle happened here.”

History

Approximately 2,200 years ago, there was a war between the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks won and forced their culture on the Jews. A group of Jewish people called the Maccabees revolted and liberated Jerusalem. The Maccabees found their Temple defiled. They sought to rededicate it to God, as the Greeks had been worshipping Zeus there. As part of the rededication, they needed to relight the menorah, whose source of fuel was olive oil and even though there was not enough oil to lat more than a day, the oil lasted eight days which was considered a miracle.

Customs

There is a custom of eating foods fried or baked in oil (preferably olive oil) to commemorate the miracle of a small flask of oil keeping the Second Temple‘s Menorah alight for eight days. Traditional foods include potato pancakes, known as latkes in Yiddish, jam-filled doughnuts, bimuelos (fritters) and sufganiyot which are deep-fried in oil.

Rabbinic literature also records a tradition of eating cheese and other dairy products during Hanukkah.

Chanukkah gelt (Yiddish for “Chanukkah money”) known in Israel by the Hebrew translation dmei Hanukkah, is often distributed to children during the festival of Hanukkah. The giving of Hanukkah gelt also adds to the holiday excitement. The amount is usually in small coins, although grandparents or relatives may give larger sums.

The tradition of giving Chanukah gelt dates back to a long-standing East European custom of children presenting their teachers with a small sum of money at this time of year as a token of gratitude. One minhag favors the fifth night of Hanukkah for giving Hanukkah gelt. Unlike the other nights of Hanukkah, the fifth does not ever fall on the Shabbat, hence never conflicting with the Halachic injunction against handling money on the Shabbat.

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