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What is Chanukah and how do we celebrate it?

Find out more about the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, and the history and customs of the festival of lights.

    A Chanukah menorah outside Edgware Station in North-West London (Credit: Chesdovi)
    A Chanukah menorah outside Edgware Station in North-West London (Credit: Chesdovi)

    What is Chanukah?

    Chanukah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-night long Jewish holiday. It starts on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which usually falls some time in December.

    The origins of the Chanukah story

    The events surrounding the holiday of Chanukah took place around the period of 175-165 B.C.E.

    The Seleucid Empire, a Hellenistic kingdom based in modern-day Syria, had managed to wrest away control of the land of Judea from the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt.

    Under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucids attempted to forcibly assimilate the Jewish population. Key tenets of Judaism, such as Shabbat observance, Kashrut dietary laws and Circumcision, were banned.

    To add insult to injury, Antiochus ordered that an altar to the Greek god Zeus be built within the Holy Temple complex in Jerusalem, and that pigs – a ritually unclean animal for Jews – be sacrificed there.

    Things came to a head in 167 B.C.E, when a man named Mattityahu, of the priestly Hasmonean family, launched a full-scale revolt together with his five sons; Yehudah, Yochanan, Yonatan, Elazar and Shimon.

    The rebels managed to drive out the Seleucids and liberate Jerusalem. They ritually purified the Temple and wanted to light the Menorah (candelabra), which was meant to burn continuously. However, they only had enough ritually purified oil for one day, while it would take longer to receive new supplies of oil. The story has it that the Menorah’s oil, which was meant to burn for one day, instead miraculously lasted for eight days.

    Chanukah customs and celebration

    Due to the timeframe of the events in question, the holiday is one which was instituted by Rabbinic authorities rather than mentioned in scripture.

    The restrictions which are often in place when it comes to religious holidays do not apply to Chanukah. Those observing the festival are able to travel and work as usual.

    Menorah

    The most famous custom of Chanukah is the lighting of the Menorah, or Chanukiah (candelabra). The traditional Chanukah Menorah has eight regular branches and a ninth, known as the “Shamash” or “helper”, which is usually placed slightly above the other eight. The Shamash is lit every night, but the number of other lights depends on the night in question. On the first night, one of the remaining eight will be lit, on the second night two, and so on, until on the eighth night all eight regular branches of the Menorah, plus the Shamash, are lit.

    Traditionally people used oil for the lights of Chanukah. However, many people nowadays use candles instead. 

    Maoz Tzur

    Once the Chanukah candles are lit, many households sing the Hebrew song of Maoz Tzur (literally “Stronghold of Rock”, a reference to God), which details some of the periods of struggle that the Jewish people have been liberated from – notably, Egypt, Babylon, Persia and the Syrian-Greeks of the Chanukah story itself.

    Dreidel

    There is also a custom on Chanukah to play with dreidels, which are four sided spinning tops. The custom is said to derive from the actions of Jewish children who were studying Torah, a forbidden practice under Antiochus. When Imperial soldiers would come to inspect whether anyone was studying Torah, the children would hide any learning materials and play games involving spinning tops.

    Each side has a different Hebrew letter – Nun, Gimmel, Hei and Shin. This is an acronym for “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” – “A great miracle happened there.”

    In Israel, the Shin is substituted for the letter Pei, making the acronym “Nes Gadol Haya Po” – “A great miracle happened here.”

    In the traditional game of dreidel, sometimes played with coins or nuts, the result for the spinner depends on the letter showing when the top falls over. Nun means no change, Gimmel means take all, Hei means take half and Shin means give half.

    Doughnuts and Latkes

    Due to the miracle of the oil, it is traditional to have very oily foods on Chanukah. Both “sufganiyot” – doughnuts, and “latkes” – fried potato pancakes – are now Chanukah staples.

    Chanukah gelt
    Chanukah gelt Liz West

    Chanukah Gelt

    It is customary for parents and grandparents to give children money or some form of gift during the festival. Often this “gelt” - which means “gold” in Yiddish - will nowadays be in the form of chocolate money.

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