clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Everything you always wanted to know about Hanukkah but were afraid to ask

Hanukkah looks simple from the outside, right? Candles and fried foods. But the holiday means so much more

Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah conducts the ceremony as the lighting of a menorah in the state Capitol rotunda marks the first night of Hanukkah in Salt Lake City Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019.
Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah conducts a Hanukkah ceremony in the state Capitol rotunda in Salt Lake City Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Because the holiday falls so close to Christmas, big Hanukkah celebrations are increasingly a marker of American Jewish identity — a way for Jews to remind ourselves and those around us that, while we are a part of this country’s traditions, we also have a distinct culture of our own.

But Jews didn’t always make such a fuss about the holiday, which starts on Sunday, Nov. 28, this year. The story that gave rise to the festival of lights doesn’t even appear in the Hebrew Bible.

Hanukkah is a rabbinically ordained holiday, as opposed to one the Torah commands Jews to celebrate. Further, the prohibitions against work that exist for major holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah don’t apply to Hanukkah.

Don’t get me wrong, the spiritual lessons of Hanukkah have always been important. And it’s a fun holiday because it gives Jews a license to spend eight nights eating tasty fried foods. The most popular are potato pancakes, called levivot in Hebrew but widely referred to by the Yiddish word latkes by American Jews, and sufganiyot, doughnuts.

Simply put, we eat these fried foods — and light candles every night — because the holiday commemorates a miracle involving oil.

A ragtag group of rebels armed with faith

The short version of the Hanukkah story goes like this: In the second century B.C., the Greek-Syrians (who are sometimes referred to by the more historically accurate and politically correct moniker Seleucids) sought to Hellenize the Jews.

They wanted the Jews to disavow God and their religion. But the Jewish people refused; defiant, they held fast to their beliefs. And, led by Judah Maccabee, a small ragtag group of rebels defeated one of the region’s mightiest armies (though the Greeks weren’t completely driven from the land and fighting continued).

After beating the Seleucids, the Jews returned to their temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated. The Jews wanted to rededicate their temple to God by lighting the seven-candle menorah, but they found that only one canister of ritually pure oil remained. Believing that the oil would only last for one day, they made a leap of faith and lit the menorah anyway. Miraculously, it stayed lit for not one night but eight.

So Hanukkah is really about two miracles: the victory of those poorly equipped fighters who were armed with little more than their faith and that tiny bit of oil lasting for eight nights. (However, a couple of thousand years ago, rabbis made an intentional, ideological decision to focus on the oil and deemphasize the military victory, a choice explained by The Conversation in 2017).

Jews reenact the miracle of the oil every year by lighting candles for eight sequential nights. We always begin by lighting the shammash — the helper or servant candle — and then we use that to light the others.

On the first night, we use the shammash to light one candle, the second night, two, and so on until the last night when all eight are ablaze.

As with other holidays, there are unique prayers for Hanukkah. And many Jews also sing “Maoz Tzur,” or “Rock of Ages,” a liturgical poem that is widely believed to have been written in Europe in the 12th or 13th century, amid another wave of violence: the Crusades.

Oh, and as I mentioned already, we also fry lots of delicious things!

More Hanukkah fun facts

In America, many Jews mistakenly say we’re lighting a “menorah” during Hanukkah. But the word menorah actually refers to the seven-branched candelabra that was used in the temple in Jerusalem and that is a symbol of both Judaism and the State of Israel.

The thing we light for the holiday is actually a hanukkiah, which holds nine candles: eight for the eight nights and then the ninth, the shammash, which is used to light the others. The shammash is supposed to be distinct from the other candles; it is usually positioned higher than the rest.

Traditionally, the lit hannukiah is proudly displayed in a window and serves as a reminder to both Jews and non-Jews that we won’t be ashamed of our identity nor be bullied into hiding our heritage.

In recent years, some Jewish sects have taken Hanukkah celebrations out into their community with public candle lighting ceremonies. These public ceremonies embody “the idea of lighting the darkness of the world around us with the light of God and the light of Torah,” said Salt Lake City Rabbi Benny Zippel.

During Hanukkah, Jews often play dreidel. Each face of the four-sided spinning top is emblazoned with a different Hebrew letter, although the letters are slightly different depending on whether you’re in Israel or abroad.

If you’re abroad, the four letters are nun, gimmel, hey and shin, a sequence that is supposed to stand for “nes gadol haya sham,” which translates to “A great miracle happened there.”

In Israel, three of the four letters on the dreidel are the same, but the last one is different. An Israeli dreidel reads nun, gimmel, hey and peh, which supposedly stands for “nes gadol haya poh,” “A great miracle happened here.”

A time to rededicate our homes and ourselves to God

While I’ve got you thinking about letters and words, let’s talk about the name of the holiday. The word Hanukkah, which is also spelled Chanukah, means “dedication.” Hebrew speakers will tell you that the word shares the same three-letter root as the word for “education.” (This connection isn’t lost on rabbis, either). And that linguistic play can go in many directions.

Here’s one: You can think of the holiday as an opportunity for the Jewish community to educate itself and rededicate itself to the continued growth that comes from education — a worthy lesson for Jews and non-Jews alike.

Considering, too, that Hanukkah is observed at home, a place that, in Judaism, is referred to as mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary, the holiday can also serve as a reminder to rededicate your individual temples — your lives, deeds and words — to God.

Chag chanukah sameach! Happy Hanukkah holiday!

(Enjoy the fried foods — you can worry about your waistline when it’s over.)