Hanukkah or Chanukah (Hebrew for “dedication”), annual festival of the Jewish people celebrated on eight successive days. It begins on the 25th day of Kislev, the third month of the Jewish calendar, corresponding, approximately, to December in the Gregorian calendar. Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights, Feast of Dedication, and Feast of the Maccabees.
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem by Judas Maccabee in 165 bc. Rededication was necessary because Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of Syria and overlord of Palestine, had profaned (defiled) the temple. In 168 bc, on a date corresponding approximately to December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, the temple was dedicated to the worship of the pagan god Zeus Olympius by order of Antiochus, who forbade the practice of Judaism. An altar to Zeus was set up on the high altar. When Judas Maccabee recaptured Jerusalem three years later, he had the temple purged and a new altar put up in place of the desecrated one. The temple was then rededicated to God with festivities that lasted eight days (see 1 Maccabees chapters 3 and 4). According to tradition, only a one-day supply of nondesecrated olive oil could be found for the rededication, but that small quantity burned miraculously for eight days. Jews commemorate this event by lighting candles for the eight nights of Hanukkah. The principal source for the story of Hanukkah is the Talmud.
III MODERN CELEBRATION OF HANUKKAH
The principal feature of present-day Hanukkah celebrations is the lighting of candles, one the first night, two the second, and so on until eight candles have been lit in a special candelabrum called a menorah. A Hanukkah menorah has eight branches and a holder for an extra candle that is used to light the others. (A seven-branched menorah that also has its origins in biblical times is now a symbol for the state of Israel.) A blessing is said each night as the Hanukkah candles are lit.
Hanukkah is a festive family occasion, with special foods and songs. Children generally receive small gifts or money, known as Hanukkah gelt (money), each evening after the candles are lit. Foods fried in oil, such as latkes (potato pancakes) and doughnuts, commemorate the miracle of the oil. Sweet foods also are popular, and children may receive chocolate coins in place of Hanukkah gelt. Songs also play a part in the festivities and remind the family of the events commemorated.
Traditionally, Hanukkah was one of the only times that rabbis permitted games of chance. Children sometimes play games with a spinning top called a dreidel during the eight days of the festival. Before play, each player puts a certain number of coins, candies, or another object into a “pot.” One player then spins the dreidel. Each of the four sides of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the side that lands up when the dreidel stops spinning indicates which part of the pot the player will receive. The Hebrew letter nun indicates “nothing”; the letter gimel, “all”; hei, “half”; and shin, “put in” or “match the pot.” Over time, these letters came to stand for the Hebrew phrase Nes gadol haya sham (“A great miracle happened there”). Children also play by guessing which letter will appear when the dreidel stops, with the winner claiming the pot.
In Israel, the letter pei, for the word po (“here”), is substituted for shin on the dreidel, changing the resulting phrase to “A great miracle happened here.”