Get to know Hanukkah, the festival of lights!

For eight days, we kindle the lights of the Menorah in honor of the miracles God performed for the Jewish people during the rule of the Greek empire in Israel. The Menorah publicizes these miracles!

In the darkness of winter, the festival of Hanukkah brings light and joy to the homes of Jewish people around Israel and the rest of the world! Walk around Jerusalem at night time and you will witness a city bathed in the warm glow of millions of Hanukkah candles which sit proudly atop the Menorahs placed at the entrance of every home.

Each night, families gather around the Menorah (candelabra) and light the number of candles that represent each night of Hanukkah. We make a blessing, sing the Hanukkah song of Maoz Tzur, and then enjoy delicious fried foods in honor of the miracle of the small vial of oil.

During Hanukkah, we add additional prayers to our regular service, including Hallel, a prayer of thanksgiving which is accompanied by song and dance, and Al Hanisim, a prayer that refers to the miracles of Hanukkah!

The History of Hanukkah

Over 2000 years ago, Israel was ruled over by the Syrian-Greek empire. The Hanukkah story begins under the reign of King Antiochus III, from 222-186 B.C.E. At the beginning he was somewhat favorable to the Jewish people but when he lost a battle against the Roman Empire and was forced to pay heavy taxes, he passed the burden onto the people. When Antiochus died he was succeeded by his son Seleucus IV, who began to oppress the Jews of the Holy Land.

Rather than physical oppression, he attempted to strip the Jews of their Judaism through Hellenization, which involved spreading Greek culture and religious beliefs across the land.

In 174 B.C.E. Seleucus IV was replaced by his brother, Antiochus IV who took an even more aggressive approach against the Jews. He removed the High Priest from the Temple and replaced him with a new priest who was a Hellenist. Jewish practice such as Shabbat observance was banned, and he desecrated the temple, including the burning of the holy Torah scrolls.

The rebellion began when the Jewish priest Mattityahu refused to offer sacrifices to the Greek Gods. Along with his sons, they killed the local officers and fled to the Judean Hills for refuge.

His son Judah Maccabee would lead his brothers in a war against the empire, including a battle in which the small band of warriors defeated 40,000 soldiers! When they arrived in Jerusalem, they found the Temple had been desecrated. They cleared out the idols and built a new altar. They then needed to find the holy oil with which to light the Menorah but found one vial of untampered oil, enough for just one day.

But God performed a miracle and the oil lasted eight days, enough time to produce more oil. Finally, the Jews could once again practice Judaism in peace in the Holy Land!

Celebrating Tradition and Joy

Wherever the Jewish people have found themselves, they have celebrated Hanukkah. Every evening, we set up the Menorah and place the number of candles in their holders which correspond to which day of Hannukah it is, one additional candle for each additional day. We recite blessings and sing together and then it’s time for treats!

In honor of the miracle of the oil we eat special fried foods including latkes, a fried potato cutlet, and sufganiyot (Hebrew for donuts!) A beautiful custom is that following the candle lighting, the women of the household refrain from their chores for at least half an hour and sit by the Hanukkah candles to enjoy a well-earned rest and absorb some of the holiness of the festival.

In some families, there is a tradition for every member of the household to light their own Menorah, which many schoolchildren make in class. They play with a “dreidel”, a spinning top with four sides on which the Hebrew letters, nun, gimmel, hei and shin, are printed. They stand for nes gadol hayah sham, meaning “a great miracle happened there” in Hebrew which refers to the numerous miracles of Hanukkah. Parents and grandparents traditionally give the children Hanukkah gelt (money in Yiddish) of which they are encouraged to give a portion to charity.

Hanukkah comes at the exact right time in the calendar. In these dark, cold winter months, the festival of light shines through, bringing joy and happiness to the Jewish people and those who are fortunate enough to experience the delights of the lighting of the Menorah. In many communities in Israel and around the world, there are public lighting ceremonies with music and dancing so that everyone, both Jewish and not Jewish can enjoy the beauty of this special festival.

Not only are we praising God for the miracles he performed during the Hanukkah story, but the festival gives us a boost of energy and positivity to get us through the rest of the winter.

There is a powerful photo that was taken on Hanukkah in 1932. It shows a Menorah with the candles lit, on a windowsill overlooking the local Nazi headquarters in Germany. The photo was taken by Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva Posner who said these words:

“Their (Nazis) flag wishes to see the death of Judah, but Judah will always survive, and our light will outlast their flag.”

This is the message of Hanukkah, that even in the darkest of times, the light of Israel will shine and never dim.

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Culture & History of Israel