Below is the written description of Hanukkah: the history, the legends, the foods, and the rules of dreidel. You should also check out Rabbi Baum’s 3 minute video podcasts about the holiday.
Why is the holiday spelled so many different ways? Is it Hanukkah, Chanukah, or Hanuka, or something else?
Because Hanukkah is actually a Hebrew word, it’s transliterated in different ways into English. So, spell it however you want!
Why does the date of Hanukkah move? Some years it falls in early December (and sometimes even November!) and some years it’s closer to Christmas. What’s that about?
Hanukkah always falls on the same date on the Hebrew Calendar – it’s the 25th day of the month of Kislev. But, because the Jewish calendar is both solar and lunar (whereas our standard calendar is just solar), the dates on both calendars don’t correspond directly. So, the Jewish holidays move around a bit on the secular calendar. It’s confusing.
What is the holiday of Hanukkah about? What are we celebrating?
Hanukkah is a story about practical politics and a military victory. Antiochus was a Syrian king who ruled over the Jews living in Judea around the time 168 BCE (168 years before the year 0). Antiochus wanted all of the groups in his domain to be Hellenized – to adopt Greek culture. But, the Jews resisted. The Syrian-Greeks (Seleucids) desecrated the Jewish Temple and a war ensued for about 3 years.
The Jews who decided to fight back were called the Maccabees (AKA Hasmoneans) and their leader was Judah Maccabee. Eventually, they emerged victorious and had an 8 day celebration. That’s why Hanukkah is celebrated for 8 days.
A few hundred years later, the rabbis of the Talmud concocted a story about a miracle of oil. They wrote in the Talmud (codified around the year 500 CE) says that when the Greeks entered the Temple, they destroyed all the oil in it. When the Hasmonean/Maccabean dynasty prevailed, they searched and found only one bottle of oil, sealed by the High Priest. It contained only enough for one day, and yet a miracle came about and the oil lasted for eight days.
Of course, that’s the story most of us learn about Hanukkah… but the reality is that it’s just a story – a legend. There’s no historical accuracy to the oil tale.
The written materials from closer to the actual events are not in the Talmud – but the Book of Maccabees I and II. There we learn about a letter sent around the year 125 BCE from the Hasmoneans to the leaders of Egyptian Jewry which refers to the hoilday as “The festival of Sukkot celebrated in the monthof Kislev (December).” So, it turns out Hanukkah was originally celebrated for 8 days because of Sukkot – the Jewish harvest holiday in the fall each year which is an 8 day holiday. Since the Jews hadn’t been able to observe Sukkot while they were at war with the Syrians, they then celebrated the holiday when they finally rededicated the Temple, after the Maccabean revolt.
How do I light a Hanukkah menorah (AKA Hanukiyah)?
Two famous rabbis argued about this question approximately 2,000 years ago. Rabbi Shammai said we should begin lighting all 8 candles and remove 1 candle each night. This was connected to the holiday of Sukkot (since a decreasing number of sacrifices was brought to the Temple each day during the 8 days of Sukkot). Rabbi Hillel said we should begin with one candle and add an additional candle each night. He said we should light an additional candle each night as a sign of the increasing holiness.
Hillel’s opinion usually wins out – so the tradition today is to add a candle each night – and to put the candles in from right to left and light them from left to right. But, then again, the tradition is also that there are lots of opinions – so light it however you want!
What are the blessings to say when we light the candles?
If you are looking for the traditional blessings, those bless God as a king – a God who has commanded us to light the Hanukkah lights and who performs miracles. If you are looking for a new set of Hanukkah blessings, check out the ones from Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio. They are written from a humanistic perspective. A sample of two nights is available, or you can order the whole home service set.
What do we eat on the holiday of Hanukkah?
To emphasize the story of the miracle of oil, we eat a lot of food fried in oil. The most common foods are latkes, which are potato pancakes. They are eaten with sour cream, applesauce, jam, or sometimes ketchup. Other popular Hanukkah treats are jelly donuts (sufganiyot in Hebrew). Chocolate coins, called gelt, are a popular treat during the holiday as well. They symbolize the tradition of gift giving.
How do you play dreidel? And, what’s a dreidel anyway?
Dreidels are four-sided tops. Each side has a Hebrew letter on it which represents a word from the phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” – which is Hebrew for “a great miracle happened there.” Like latkes and jelly donuts, this is to remind us of the legend about the miracle of oil. In Israel, the dreidel reads “A great miracle happend here” – instead of there – because that is where the story says the miracle occurred.
To play dreidel, each person begins with a few M&M’s, pennies, or other small candy. Each person puts one of their pieces into the center to create the “pot.” When it is your turn, you spin the dreidel and see which side it lands on. The letter you land on determines the next step.
- Nun (the skinny letter with a straight line at the bottom): Nothing happens
- Gimel (the skinny letter which is not flat at the bottom): Get everything in the center
- Hay (the letter that has two vertical lines and one horizontal line at the top): Get half of what is in the center
- Shin (the letter with three vertical (or diagonal) lines connected to a line on the bottom): Put one additional piece into the center.