What do Jews celebrate during Hanukkah?

Thank you, Gail Katz, for answering our question this week!

Hanukkah is one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays in the United States. Jews commemorate the re-dedication of the Jerusalem Temple after the Maccabees defeated the Syrian Greeks that had invaded Israel.  The Maccabees were a small group of Jews led by Mattathias and his five sons, including the one that most Jews are familiar with – Judah Maccabee. In the year 165 B.C.E. the Maccabees and their small army defeated the forces of King Antiochus, who had imposed paganism on the Jewish people, defiled their holy temple by sacrificing pigs, (a non-kosher animal) on the altar, prohibited the Jews from offering sacrifices at the Temple, and forbade them from studying Torah. The Maccabees, after defeating the Syrian Greek army, regained control over the Temple, cleansed it from the defilement and rededicated it. Therefore the word Hanukkah means “rededication.”

Hanukkah receives only a brief reference in the Talmud, the collection of Jewish oral law and tradition written down hundreds of years after the Maccabees’ revolt.  The Talmud records the miracle that happened when the Maccabees regained control over the Temple.  When Judah Maccabee entered the desecrated Temple, he discovered only a small vial of oil which had the seal of the High Priest that sanctified it for ritual use to keep the eternal light in the Temple burning.  There was only enough oil for one night, and yet the holy oil burned for eight nights, long enough for a new supply of oil to arrive. Therefore Jews light candles in the hanukiah (the special Hanukkah menorah, or candelabra) for eight nights in celebration of the miracle that occurred years ago when the holy Temple was rededicated and made pure again.

Hanukkah is the holiday where we focus more on the miracle of the oil rather than glorifying the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks.  Perhaps the eternal lesson of Hanukkah is that we must trust and have faith in God, as the Maccabees had faith when they lit the small vial of oil that lasted for eight days. We light the Hanukkah candles at the darkest time of the year as a reminder that we must kindle trust and hope in our lives.

Hanukkah is really a minor Jewish holiday.  During the 20th century it was celebrated more widely by Jews who wanted to fit in with other Americans who were focused on the Christmas season. As a young child growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and as the only Jewish child in my elementary school classes, I remember how my teachers would always turn to me to explain this holiday – what my classmates saw as the “Jewish Christmas.”  When Jews talk about the “December Dilemma,” I can personally attest to the fact that I dreaded Christmas time because I always felt like the “other.”  Many Jewish families give each other gifts during the eight nights of Chanukah, a tradition that was taken from the Christmas season of giving presents. Hanukkah is not a “Sabbath-like” holiday, and there is no obligation to refrain from activities that are forbidden on the Sabbath. Jews go to work as usual, but may leave early in order to be home to kindle the lights at nightfall. Fried foods (such as latkes, which are potato pancakes) or jelly doughnuts are eaten to commemorate the importance of oil during the celebration of Hanukkah.

The dreidel, is a four-sided spinning top that children play with on Hanukkah. Each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter. These letters are an acronym for the Hebrew words Nes Gadol Haya Sham, “A great miracle happened there”, referring to the miracle of the oil that took place in the Temple.

Hanukkah gelt (Yiddish for “money”) is often distributed to children to add to the holiday fun. The tradition of giving Chanukah money dates back to an Eastern European custom of children presenting their teachers with a small sum of money at this time of year as a token of gratitude. In the 1920s, American chocolatiers picked up on this concept and created chocolate money that Jewish families now give to their children!

This year the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving, and many Jews are referring to this holiday as “Thanksgivukkah.”  Artists have created special turkey menorahs for this special Thanksgiving/Chanukah, which won’t happen again for another 79.000 years. 

A very Happy Hanukkah to all of our Jewish readers!