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Learn more about Hanukkah
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Hanukkah is a Jewish celebration of the defeat of the Greeks and the reclamation of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE. The story of Hanukkah can be traced back to the First and Second books of Maccabees. The stories describe the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in detail. When the Jewish soldiers went to light the temple’s menorah, they only found one pot of oil that was uncontaminated. After they lit the menorah a miracle occurred – the small supply lasted for eight days.
The holiday is observed for eight nights starting on the 25th day of Kislev. The name Hanukkah is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning dedication. The holiday is also known as the Festival of Lights honoring the oil that lit the menorah for eight days in the Second Temple.
The last night of Hanukkah is known as Zot Hanukkah or Chanukat HaMizbeach. This day is a time to repent their of love for God.
Each night of Hanukkah, a candle is lit most commonly by a shammash – a candle that has a distinct location higher, lower, or to the sides of the other candles held by the menorah. The menorah is often displayed in a window to remind people passing by of the miracle of the holiday.
During the lighting of the candles, two brachot (blessings) are recited. Depending on the tradition, the blessings can be said before or after the candles are lit. In addition to the blessings, Ashkenazi tradition dictates the hymn Ma’oz Tzur to be sung. This song was composed by a songwriter known as Mordechai during the thirteenth century. Other songs that are common in English-speaking countries include “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and “Oh Chanukah”
To commemorate the cruse of oil found in the Temple, it is customary to eat foods fried or baked in oil. Popular foods include latkes (fried potato fritters), sufganiyot (deep-fried doughnuts), and roast goose.
Hanukkah traditions vary around the world. In North America and Israel, it is common to give children presents during the celebration. Some families encourage children to give tzedakah (charity) in lieu of presents. Chanukkah gelt (Hanukkah money) is often gifted to children. Children might also enjoy spinning a dreidel. The four-sided spinning top has a Hebrew letter on each side that represents the phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” or “A great miracle happened there”.
Hanukkah in the United States
In the 1970s, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson called for public awareness and observance of Hanukkah in the United States, making the celebration more visible to the public. Most recently, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama commissioned a handmade menorah from the students at Max Rayne School in Israel. The President and First Lady extended an invitation to two students to join them in the White House as they welcomed over 500 guests for the Hanukkah celebration.
Learn more about the origin of Christmas, traditions, and more in our Celebrate Christmas blog post!
Learn about the celebration of Kwanzaa, its origins, and more in our Celebrate Kwanzaa blog post!