Hanukkah (Hebrew, dedication), also called the festival of lights, falls on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev.
Hanukkah is not a religious holiday stemming from any Biblical
injunction, but an historical one, connected with the armed uprising
under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, son of Matitiyahu the Hasmonean.
The uprising was against the Seleucids, who during their occupation of
Palestine forced Hellenistic polytheism onto the Jews and defiled the
Temple. The uprising ended in 165 BC in victory for Judah Maccabee,
resulting in the conquest of Jerusalem and the reconsecration of the
According to the story upon which this holiday is based, the
Hasmoneans only found one ampule with pure oil that could be used to
like the temple's candles was found in the ruins of the Temple with the
undisturbed priest's seal. Such a tiny amount would be enough just to
light the menorah for one day, and at least eight were needed in order
to prepare pure, ritually clean oil. Despite the fact that there was so
little oil, the menorah burned without interruption for eight entire
The Jews do not celebrate the military victory of the Hasmoneans,
the expulsion of the Syrians from Jerusalem, or the return of the temple
cult, but rather it is God's miracle that is honored: the fact that the
small contained of oil lit the Temple until new oil could be pressed.
In memory of this miracle, people burn candles
in eight-armed chanukiyas-candle-holders that are only used for the
celebration of this period. Each day of the festival of lights, when the
sun sets, another candle is lit: the first day just one, the second day
another, etc., reciting the special blessings for this holiday and
singing Maoz tsur (Hebrew, Rock of Ages), a thirteenth-century hymn that
speaks of how God tests the faithful in every century through
suffering, nevertheless saving them from persecution by their enemies.
The Hanukkah lamps are hung in the entryways that come in from the
street, or are placed in the windows, so that their light "announced the
miracle to passersby". It is important that the light of the chanukiya
serves no practical purpose�it cannot light the home, so one must not do
any work by its light, even read or study.
Foods traditional for Hanukkah are fried in oil�pancakes, doughnuts
and crepes. Children get money from adults (chanuka gelt) so they can
play dreidel with it (a four-sided toy spun like a top), on whose sides
the following letters are written: nun, gimel, he and shin, which stands
for the Hebrew sentence "a great miracle happened there" (nes gadol
haya sham). Depending what side the dreidel lands on, the player either
takes the entire pool of money, half of it, nothing or adds a double
amount to the "bank". Despite admonitions from rabbis, adults also give
in to gambling, playing cards for money in a game that is similar to the
Polish card game "Oczko", but which only goes up to 18 points.
Chanukiya, the candle-holder lit during the
festival of lights, is either an eight-armed menorah with an additional,
higher arm known as a shames, or a specially decorated lamp comprised
of eight smaller individual lamps. In Ashkenazic culture, it is typical
for the chanukiya to have a back wall, usually embroidered, richly
decorated with traditional designs, including lions, deer, plants,
bunches of grapes, stylized menorahs, birds, abstract patterns and
grotesques. The shames is always an element of each chanukiya�that is to
say an extra lamp or place for a candle, from which the other lights in
the lamp are lit. The shames must be positioned so that it cannot be
mistaken for the other holiday candles�usually this means it is placed
on the side or above the others, on a separate arm. The Hanukkah lamps
have a handle that allow them to be hung in the doorway, or a stand that
allows them to be placed safely in the window.