Hanukkah is not one of the most important holidays in Judaism. But it’s certainly the most well-known.
Hanukkah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar (which happens to fall on Dec. 18 this year), is an eight-day celebration.
Most gentiles (or non Jews) know Hanukkah as the story of the miracle of the oil. That is, as the story goes, one container of usable oil ended up lasting eight nights.
But there’s more to the celebration.
Hanukkah also celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. As the story goes, the Seleucids desecrated the Second Temple. A group known as the Maccabees eventually won in what is known as the Maccabean Revolt.
The word “Hanukkah” is rooted in the Hebrew word for “dedication.”
Hanukkah tradition: Lighting candles
There is really only one long-standing tradition for Hanukkah: Light candles.
As is customary for the holiday, each candle should be lit for at least 30 minutes (though, some candelabras now offer electric candles with push buttons!).
After the lighting of candles, those gathered offer sayings and sing “Maoz Tzur.”
The display of candles is meant to be a very public thing. So, typically candles are displayed in the most prominent window in the house.
(Of course, fire safety methods should be followed, and candles shouldn’t be left lit unattended.)
A menorah has seven candle branches. The hanukkiah (or hanukkiah menorah) offers nine candle branches: One for each night plus the shammash, which is considered the “helper” candle that is used to light the others. “Menorah” is the Hebrew word for “lamp.”
It’s important to note that every hanukkiah is a menorah. But not every menorah is a hanukkiah.
Efforts in the 1970s in the United States by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to popularize Hanukkah led to a number of public hanukkiah displays.
Other Hanukkah traditions: Dreidel
Along the way, other traditions have helped to shape Hanukkah celebrations.
A popular Hanukkah tradition that nearly all elementary children learn about is the dreidel.
While the game is fun for children, dreidel grew out of a necessity to learn Hebrew and study the Torah after Greek King Antiochus IV, in 175 BCE, outlawed Jewish worship.
The four sides of the dreidel display:
- Nun (נ)
- Gimmel (ג)
- Hey (ה)
- Shin (ש)
When combined, “nun,” “gimmel,” “hay” and “shin” translate to “a great miracle happened there.”
How is dreidel played?
With at least two players, you’ll need the dreidel and tokens (usually chocolate tokens called gelt).
- Divide the tokens (gelt) equally among those playing.
- Spin the dreidel to see the order of game play. “Nun” is the highest rank, followed by “gimmel,” “hey” and “shin.” If there’s a tie? You know the drill: Keep spinning!
- Players place one token in the middle to play.
- Each player spins the dreidel once. Depending on the side the dreidel lands on, the player gives or takes tokens from the group collection.
- Shin: Add a token to the middle
- Nun: No action
- Gimmel: Take all of the tokens!
- Hay: Get half of all tokens in the middle. If there’s an odd number, round up.
- Play in a clockwise direction.
- Game continues until someone wins all of the tokens! (It’s much shorter than Monopoly!)
- Run out of tokens? Your game play is either over or you could ask for a “loan” from another player.
- Winner eats (but also could share) the chocolate!
What is a celebration without food?
Along with the gelt for playing dreidel, Hanukkah has evolved into a scrumptious food fest, complete with latkes (topped with applesauce or sour cream); brisket; sufganiyot (kind of like a jelly-filled doughnut); kugel (a Jewish noodle casserole dish) and cheesy foods (blintzes, cheese danishes, etc).
Though considered to be a more recent tradition, giving gifts has become part of Hanukkah, which is said to derive from European tradition and the constant comparison between Hanukkah and Christmas in the United States.
Though the origins of gift-giving are generally unclear, it is said the idea of giving gifts grew in the 1950s as a way to make Jewish children be proud to be Jewish as they saw their friends and others getting gifts for Christmas.