Everything you ever wanted to know about the Festival of Lights
Hanukkah, aka the Festival of Lights, celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in the 2nd century BCE and the Maccabees’ uprising against the Greeks.
Hanukkah 2013 begins at sundown on Wednesday, November 27, and ends at sundown on Thursday, December 5.
Hebrew for “dedication,” Hanukkah is an eight-day-long celebration commemorates just that: the purging and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE after the Jews’ successful uprising against the Greeks.
Absolutely: Antiochus IV, one the best villains in all of Jewish history. As his nicknames—“the Illustrious” and “Bearer of Victory”—suggest, the ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire was fond of waging war. He was engaging in that pastime in Egypt when a rumor circulated in the region that he’d been killed. Meanwhile, Jason, a Hellenized Jew who’d been deposed as the Temple’s high priest, heard of Antiochus’ death and saw an opportunity to reclaim his position, so he marched on Jerusalem with 1,000 men. Antiochus interpreted the clash in the holy city as a full-fledged Jewish revolt against the foreign rulers, and, in 167 BCE, he attacked Judea and punished its population by outlawing all Jewish rites and practices and mandating the worship of Zeus.
By so doing, most modern scholars agree, the king was simply intervening in an existing civil war between those Hebrews who called for a strict adherence to tradition and those, like Jason, who preached assimilation to Hellenism. Antiochus’ involvement, however, aggravated the internecine struggle and prompted the traditionalists to launch a genuine anti-Greek revolt, led by an aged priest, Mattathias the Hasmonean, and his five sons—Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah—the latter nicknamed HaMakabi, or the hammer, for his combat skills. Followers of the fighting family eventually became known as Maccabees. Two years later, led by Judah, the Maccabees succeeded in defeating Antiochus’ troops, recaptured the Temple, and set out to purge it of idols.
According to the Talmud, the Maccabees wished to light the Temple’s menorah, a traditional candelabrum that customarily burned through the night in Judaism’s holiest place, but discovered just enough oil to last for one day. Miraculously, however, the oil burned for eight days, a wonder we commemorate by lighting candles for eight nights.
Given its themes of Jewish nationalism and rebellion, the rabbis downplayed Hanukkah’s importance throughout the centuries in exile, fearing it might inspire their flock to imitate the Maccabees and take up arms. More recently, however, the holiday has experienced a renaissance: Celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev—and therefore usually falling somewhere between late November and late December on the Gregorian calendar—Hanukkah has emerged as a Jewish equivalent to Christmas.
As far as Jewish holidays go, Hanukkah is a lenient one, as it is not a Sabbath-like holiday and therefore forbids no particular practices. The major ritual of the holiday involves lighting the hanukkiah, the proper name for an eight-flamed menorah, which should be completed each night no later than half an hour after nightfall (except on Fridays). The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, specifies that unlike Shabbat candles, Hanukkah candles must serve not for illumination but for the sole purpose of reflecting on the Hanukkah miracle. This is why we light them with another candle, called the shamash, meaning servant, and why we place them on a windowsill so they advertise the holiday’s miracle to the world entire. As we light the candles, we recite two blessings: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light[s],” and “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.” On the first night of Hanukkah, we also recite the Sheheheyanu prayer, traditionally said whenever a happy occasion is celebrated for the first time in a new season. Hymns and poems are also sung, most notably “Hanerot Halalu” and “Maoz Tzur,” both retelling the Hanukkah story. There are also several additions to the daily prayers, including “Al HaNissim” (Hebrew for “about the miracles”), a special recitation that is added to the silent devotion prayer and that celebrates the Maccabees’ unlikely victory.
In a more earthly realm, there’s the tradition of playing with a dreidel, the Hebrew letters on which stand for “a great miracle happened there” (or, in Israel, “a great miracle happened here”). There is also the habit of giving gelt, or money, to children and young adults. Although there are several explanations concerning the origins of this custom, the most commonly held one dates to the 17th century and explains that with miracles and the elation of the historic victory on everybody’s minds, young, impoverished students would visit the homes of wealthy Jews and receive a few coins in return. More recently, nimble chocolatiers presented their own gold-foil-covered alternatives. Whether cash or cocoa, however, giving gelt fits in nicely with the overall spirit of December’s gift-giving mania.
It’s traditional on Hanukkah to eat fried foods like latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts)—a natural choice for an oil-themed holiday.
The Hanukkah texts are considered part of the apocrypha and not included in the Hebrew Bible. They include the two books of Maccabees, which tell the story of the rebellion and subsequent victory, as well as the Book of Judith. The sister of Mattathias, and therefore Judah’s aunt, she is believed to have tempted Holofernes, a conquering Assyrian general, with her beauty, giving him wine and cheese and, when he was drifting off to sleep, decapitating him. The assassination emboldened the Jews, terrified the occupiers, and saved the town of Bethulia from falling into foreign hands. To commemorate Judith’s bravery, some communities eat dairy on Hanukkah, hearkening back to Judith’s feeding cheese to Holofernes. The heroic act is also the reason for women’s participation in the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles: unlike other commandments, this one commemorates, in part, the bravery of one Jewish woman, therefore requiring Jewish women everywhere to partake in the ritual.
• Learn more about Hanukkah from that preeminent Jewish scholar, Elmo.
• Take that, Irving Berlin! Rock out with Sen. Orrin Hatch’s Hanukkah song.
• Build a Droidel, the only dreidel fit for a Jewish Jedi.
• Get swept up in the great Latke-Hamantash debate.
• Watch D.W. Griffith’s classic take on Judith.