From December 8th to December 16th, 2012, our community members of the Jewish faith will celebrate Hanukkah. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days to commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah (candelabrum) lighting: a single flame on the first night, two on the second evening, and so on till the eighth night of Hanukkah, when all eight lights are kindled.

In the 2nd century BCE, Judaism was outlawed by the Greek monarch, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and he had an altar to Zeus placed in the Temple. This provoked a large-scale revolt, first led by Mattityahu, a Jewish priest, and completed by his son, Judah. The Temple was liberated and rededicated, and the festival of Hanukkah was implemented to celebrate this event.

According to the Talmud, olive oil-fuelled the menorah in the Temple, and enough was required to burn through the night every night. Traditionally, the story tells that there was only enough oil for one day; yet the flames burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. The eight-day festival was created by the Jewish sages to commemorate this believed miracle. While lighting the prominently displayed menorah, Jews typically recite blessings to remind others of the miracle that inspired the holiday.

The hymn “Ma’oz Tzur”, based on a Jewish liturgical poem, is sung after the lighting of the festival lights, and is full of allusions to Biblical literature and interpretation. “Ma’oz Tzur” (known in English as “Rock of Ages”) recalls Jewish history and celebrates their salvation from four ancient enemies: Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman, and Antiochus.

Other popular Hanukkah music includes hymns such as “Mi Y’malel” (“Who can retell the mighty feats of Israel?”), “Ner Li” (“I have a Candle”), “Sevivon, sov, sov, sov” (“Dreidle, spin, spin, spin”) and the Dreidel Song, “Ikh Bin A Kleyner Dreydl” (“I have a little dreidel”). While not directly associated with the holiday, George Frideric Handel wrote Judas Maccabaeus, an oratorio based on the events that led to the traditions of Hanukkah.

After lighting the menorah, it is customary in many homes to play the dreidel game. The dreidel, or sevivon in Hebrew, is a four-sided spinning top that children play with during Hanukkah. Each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter. Studying the Torah was outlawed by the Greeks, so the Jew devised the dreidel to camouflage the fact that they were learning. The Jews secretly gathered in caves to study; if the lookout spotted Greek soldiers, the Jews would hide the scrolls and spin tops. The soldiers would leave them alone, thinking they were gambling, not studying.

Foods fried or baked in oil (preferably olive oil) is customary, to commemorate the miracle of the oil keeping the flame alight in the Temple. Traditional foods include latkes (potato pancakes), pontshkesand sufganiyot (jam-filled doughnuts), and bimuelos (fritters).

Usually comprised of small coins, children often receive Hanukkah gelt(‘money’ in Yiddish) as a gift, though grandparents and relatives oftentimes give larger sums. While adding to the excitement, gelt giving teaches a child to increase in charity and good deeds.

While the Jewish community views Hanukkah with less religious significance to that of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), Passover, and Shavu’ot, it is a time for Jews to recall their history and the rededication of the Holy Temple.

A lichtigin Chanukah (“an enlightened Hanukkah”) and chag sameach(“Happy Holiday”) to all!

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