Chanukkah

Level: Basic

Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of ededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.

Chanukkah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.

The Story of Chanukkah

The story of Chanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conqueed Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.

More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Selucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was ededicated.

According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the ededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declaed to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.

Chanukkah Traditions

Chanukkah is not a very important religious holiday. The holiday's religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu'ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and you won't find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim! Chanukkah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of Maccabbees, which Jews do not accept as scripture.

The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or sometimes called a chanukkiah) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three berakhot (blessings) are recited: l'hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking G-d for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking G-d for allowing us to reach this time of year). See Chanukkah Candle Lighting Blessings for the full text of these blessings. After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour. Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first). On the eighth night, all nine candles (the 8 Chanukkah candles and the shammus) are lit.

Why the shammus candle? The Chanukkah candles are for pleasure only; we are not allowed to use them for any productive purpose. We keep an extra one around (the shammus), so that if we need to do something useful with a candle, we don't accidentally use the Chanukkah candles. The shammus candle is at a different height so that it is easily identified as the shammus.

It is traditional to eat fried foods on Chanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Among Ashkenazic Jews, this usually includes latkes (pronounced "lot-kuhs" or "lot-keys" depending on where your grandmother comes from. Pronounced "potato pancakes" if you are a goy.) My recipe is included later in this page.

Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians, as a way of dealing with our children's jealousy of their Christian friends. It is extremely unusual for Jews to give Chanukkah gifts to anyone other than their own young children. The only traditional gift of the holiday is "gelt," small amounts of money.

Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimmel, Heh and Shin.

This supposedly stands for the Hebrew phrase "nes gadol hayah sham", a great miracle happened there. Actually, it stands for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which are the rules of the game! There are some variations in the way people play the game, but the way I learned it, everyone puts in one coin. A person spins the dreidel. On Nun, nothing happens; on Gimmel (or, as we called it as kids, "gimme!"), you get the whole pot; on Heh, you get half of the pot; and on Shin, you put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one in. Keep playing until one person has everything. Then edivide it, because nobody likes a poor winner.

Chanukkah Music

Maoz Tzur (Rocky Fortress)
The lyrics of this song date back to approximately the 13th century C.E. It is believed to be written by a man named Mordecai, because that name is encrypted in the first letters of the five stanzas. The music dates back to at least the 18th century, and possibly as far back as the 15th century. Most people are only familiar with the first stanza, which is reproduced below. This very literal translation is not what most people are used to seeing (it is usually translated as "Rock of Ages").
Rocky Fortress of my Salvation
It is delightful to praise You
Restore my House of Prayer
And there we will give thanks with an offering
When you have prepaed the slaughter
for the blaspheming foe
Then I will complete with a song of hymn
the dedication of the altar
Then I will complete with a song of hymn
the dedication of the altar
Ma'oz tzur y'shuati
L'kha na-eh l'shabei-ach
Tikon beyt t'filati
V'sham todah n'zabei-ach
L'eit tachin matbei-ach
Mitzar ha-m'nabei-ach
Az egmor b'shir mizmor
Chanukat ha-mizbei-ach
Az egmor b'shir mizmor
Chanukat ha-mizbei-ach
A less literal but more singable translation:
Rock of Ages, let our song, Praise Thy saving power
Thou amidst the raging foes, Wast our sheltering tower
Furious they assailed us, But Thine arm availed us
And thy word broke their sword, When our own strength failed us.
And thy word broke their sword, When our own strength failed us.
Mi Y'maleil? (Who Can Retell?)
Although the translation is not quite literal, it's the closest thing to a literal translation I've been able to find. For some reasons, this popular Chanukkah song is usually translated with great liberties.
Who can tell of the feats of Israel
Who can count them?
In every age a hero arose to save the people.
Who can tell of the feats of Israel
Who can count them?
In every age a hero arose to save the people.

Hear! In those days at this time
Maccabee saved and freed us
And in our days the whole people of Israel
Arise united to save ourselves.

Mi yimalel g'vurot Yisrael
Otan mi yimneh?
Hein b'khol dor yakum hagibor, go-el ha-am.
Mi yemalel g'vurot Yisra-el
Otan mi yimneh?
Hen b'khol dor yakum hagibor, go-el ha-am.

Sh'ma! Ba-yamim ha-heim ba-z'man hazeh
Maccabee moshiya u'fodeh
U'v'yameinu kol am Yisrael
Yitacheid yakum l'higa-el.

A popular less literal but more singable translation:
Who can retell the things that befell us, who can count them?
In every age a hero or sage came to our aid
Who can retell the things that befell us, who can count them?
In every age a hero or sage came to our aid

Hear! In days of yore in Israel's ancient land
Maccabeus led the faithful band
Now all Israel must as one arise
edeem itself through deed and sacrifice

Chanukkah, Oh Channukah
There are many variations on this popular Chanukkah tune. I've provided singable versions in both English and Yiddish. The lyrics of these two versions don't really correspond to each other, but both versions speak of the fun of the secular trappings of the holiday, with slight reference to the religious aspects.
Chanukkah, Oh Chanukkah
Come light the menorah
Let's have a party
We'll all dance the hora
Gather round the table, we'll have a treat
Shiny tops to play with, latkes to eat

And while we are playing
The candles are burning low
One for each night, they shed a sweet light
To remind us of days long ago

Chanukkah, O Chanukkah
A yontev a sheyner
A lustiger a freylicher
Nito noch azoyner
Ale nacht in dreydl shpiln mir
Zudigheyse latkes esn mir

Geshvinder tsindt kinder
Di dininke lichtelech on
Zogt "al ha-nisim," loybt G-t far di nisim
Un kumt gicher tantsn in kon

Recipe for Latkes

  • 4 medium potatoes
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup matzah meal (flour or bread crumbs can be substituted)
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  • vegetable oil

Shed the potatoes, onion and bell pepper into a large bowl. Press out all excess liquid. Add eggs and parsley and mix well. Add matzah meal gradually while mixing until the batter is doughy, not too dry. (you may not need the whole amount, depending on how well you drained the veggies). Add a few dashes of salt and black pepper. (don't taste the batter -- it's really gross!). Don't worry if the batter turns a little orange; that will go away when it fries.

Heat about 1/2 inch of oil to a medium heat. Form the batter into thin patties about the size of your palm. Fry batter in oil. Be patient: this takes time, and too much flipping will burn the outside without cooking the inside. Flip when the bottom is golden brown.

Place finished latkes on paper towels to drain. Eat hot with sour cream or applesauce. They reheat OK in a microwave, but not in an oven unless you cook them just right.

If you'd like to try something a little different, add some bell peppers, parsley, carrots, celery, or other vegetables to the batter to make veggie latkes!

List of Dates

Chanukkah will begin on the following days on the American calendar:

  • December 10, 2001 (Jewish Year 5762)
  • November 30, 2002 (Jewish Year 5763)
  • December 20, 2003 (Jewish Year 5764)
  • December 8, 2004 (Jewish Year 5765)
  • December 26, 2005 (Jewish Year 5766)

For additional holiday dates, see Links to Jewish Calendars.

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