Hanukkah is the most well known of Jewish holidays and probably the most celebrated as well. This happens mostly because of its proximity to Christmas and how widely that Christian holiday is celebrated. In fact, Hanukkah is a very minor holiday in the Jewish religion. So, what is Hanukkah?
The Story of Hanukkah
Hanukkah is a holiday we celebrate to remember the miracles surrounding the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after a Syrian/Greek occupation. It is not in the Torah. It is actually considered a fairly minor holiday. It is in it’s own book called the Book of Macabees.
Our the tradition teaches that Greeks under a king named Antiochus were occupying Israel and the Jews were not allowed to practice their religion. A group called the Maccabees led by Judah Maccabee decided to wage guerrilla warfare on the much larger, stronger Greek military and they succeeded. They expelled the Greeks from the land.
Once that was done, they needed to go back into our Holy Temple that stood in Jerusalem and rededicated (make it holy again). After cleaning it, they needed to re-light what’s known as the eternal flame. It’s a light that is always burning even in synagogue today to signify that God is always with us. In those days it burned with oil. They realize they only had enough oil for one night and as our tradition tells us, a miracle happened and that one day of oil lasted the eight nights until they could get more.
How Do To Celebrate Hanukkah
Just like the oil lasted for eight nights, we celebrate for all eight nights. We light candles on a menorah (technically called a chanukiah). We start with one candle on the first night, two on the second and so on. The chanukiah also has a spot for the shamash candle which is used to light the other candles. We say two blessings over the candles each night (with an extra blessing on the first night). The first blessing thanks G-d for commanding us to light these candles and the second blessing thanks G-d for the miracles that G-d created in ancient days and today.
We also play dreidel to celebrate Hanukkah. A dreidel is a four sided top with a different Hebrew letter on each side, each of them signifying a different thing. The letters together stand for the Hebrew phrase “a great miracle happened there”. The history of the dreidel is that there were times in Jewish history when we were not allowed to study our holy texts and so this gambling game was created so that when we were being watched, it would just look like we were playing a game, not celebrating the holiday.
Finally we are commanded to retell this story. The story of G-d’s miracles and the obstacles we’ve overcome in Jewish history.
As for gifts and decorations, well Hanukkah is truly a minor holiday an those things were late additions to our practice because it is timely similarly to other holidays celebrated this time of year.
The traditional foods during Hanukkah all have to do with oil. We eat potato latkes. They are grated potatoes and onions that are fried in oil. The Israeli tradition is to make jelly donuts called sufganiyot.