Hanukkah, ה or חנוכה, Ḥănukkāh celebrated December 8 – 16, 2012

 
Alternative spellings: Spelling variations due to transliteration of Hebrew Chet Nun Vav Kaf Hey

In Hebrew, the word Hanukkah is written חֲנֻכָּה or חנוכה (Ḥănukkāh). It is most commonly transliterated to English as Chanukah or Hanukkah, the former because the sound represented by “CH” ([χ], similar to the Scottish pronunciation of “loch”) does not exist in the English language.

Furthermore, the letter “chet” (ח), which is the first letter in the Hebrew spelling, is pronounced differently in modern Hebrew (voiceless uvular fricative) than in classical Hebrew (voiceless pharyngeal fricative [ħ]), and neither of those sounds is unambiguously representable in English spelling.

Moreover, the ‘kaf’ consonant is geminate in classical (but not modern) Hebrew. Adapting the classical Hebrew pronunciation with the geminate and pharyngeal Ḥeth can lead to the spelling “Hanukkah”; while adapting the modern Hebrew pronunciation with no gemination and uvular Ḥeth leads to the spelling “Chanukah”. It has also been spelled as “Hannukah”.

Hanukkah (Hebrew: חֲנֻכָּה, Tiberian: Ḥănukkāh, usually spelled חנוכה, pronounced [χanuˈka] in Modern Hebrew; a transliteration also Romanized as Chanukah, Chanukkah or Chanuka), also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE.

Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar.

The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched Menorah or Hanukiah, one additional light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night.

The typical Menorah consists of eight branches with an additional raised branch.

The Jewish Museum

The extra light is called a shamash (Hebrew: שמש‎, “attendant”) and is given a distinct location, usually above or below the rest. The purpose of the shamash is to have a light available for use, as using the Hanukkah lights themselves is forbidden.

The name “Hanukkah” derives from the Hebrew verb “חנך”, meaning “to dedicate”.

On Hanukkah, the Jews regained control of Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple.
 
Many homiletical explanations have been given for the name:

  • The name can be broken down into חנו כ”ה, “they rested on the twenty-fifth”, referring to the fact that the Jews ceased fighting on the 25th day of Kislev, the day on which the holiday begins.
  • חנוכה (Hanukkah) is also the Hebrew acronym for ח נרות והלכה כבית הלל — “Eight candles, and the halakha is like the House of Hillel”. This is a reference to the disagreement between two rabbinical schools of thought — the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai — on the proper order in which to light the Hanukkah flames.
     
    Shammai opined that eight candles should be lit on the first night, seven on the second night, and so on down to one on the last night. Hillel argued in favor of starting with one candle and lighting an additional one every night, up to eight on the eighth night. Jewish law adopted the position of Hillel.

 
Maccabees, Mishna and Talmud

The story of Hanukkah, along with its laws and customs, is entirely missing from the Mishna apart from several passing references (Bikkurim 1:6, Rosh HaShanah 1:3, Taanit 2:10, Megillah 3:4 and 3:6, Moed Katan 3:9, and Bava Kama 6:6).

Rav Nissim Gaon postulates in his Hakdamah Le’mafteach Hatalmud that information on the holiday was so commonplace that the Mishna felt no need to explain it. Reuvein Margolies suggests that as the Mishnah was redacted after the Bar Kochba revolt, its editors were reluctant to include explicit discussion of a holiday celebrating another relatively recent revolt against a foreign ruler, for fear of antagonizing the Romans.

Hanukkah lamp unearthed near Jerusalem about 1900

The story of Hanukkah is preserved in the books of the First and Second Maccabees. These books are not part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible); they are apocryphal books instead. The miracle of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud, written about 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees.

The Gemara, in tractate Shabbat 21, focuses on Shabbat candles and moves to Hanukkah candles and says that after the forces of Antiochus IV had been driven from the Temple, the Maccabees discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, with enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a single day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days (the time it took to have new oil pressed and made ready).

The Talmud presents three options:

  • The law requires only one light each night per household,
  • A better practice is to light one light each night for each member of the household
  • The most preferred practice is to vary the number of lights each night.

Except in times of danger, the lights were to be placed outside one’s door, on the opposite side of the Mezuza, or in the window closest to the street. Rashi, in a note to Shabbat 21b, says their purpose is to publicize the miracle.

 
Other ancient sources

The story of Hanukkah is alluded to in the book of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. The eight-day rededication of the temple is described in 1 Maccabees 4:36 et seq, though the name of the festival and the miracle of the lights do not appear here. A story similar in character, and obviously older in date, is the one alluded to in 2 Maccabees 1:18 et seq according to which the relighting of the altar fire by Nehemiah was due to a miracle which occurred on the 25th of Kislev, and which appears to be given as the reason for the selection of the same date for the rededication of the altar by Judah Maccabee.

Another source is the Megillat Antiochus. This work (also known as “Megillat HaHasmonaim”, “Megillat Hanukkah” or “Megillat Yevanit”) is in both Aramaic and Hebrew; the Hebrew version is a literal translation from the Aramaic original. Recent scholarship dates it to somewhere between the 2nd and 5th Centuries, probably in the 2nd century, with the Hebrew dating to the 7th century.

It was published for the first time in Mantua in 1557. Saadia Gaon, who translated it into Arabic in the 9th century, ascribed it to the Maccabees themselves, disputed by some, since it gives dates as so many years before the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE. The Hebrew text with an English translation can be found in the Siddur of Philip Birnbaum.

The Christian Bible refers to Jesus being at the Jerusalem Temple during “the Feast of Dedication and it was winter” in John 10:22-23, the Greek term used is “the renewals” (Greek ta engkainia τὰ ἐγκαίνια). Josephus refers to the festival as “lights.”
 
Hanukkah is celebrated by a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the 8-day holiday, some are family-based and others communal. There are special additions to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals. Hanukkah is not a “Sabbath-like” holiday, and there is no obligation to refrain from activities that are forbidden on the Sabbath, as specified in the Shulkhan Arukh.

Adherents go to work as usual, but may leave early in order to be home to kindle the lights at nightfall. There is no religious reason for schools to be closed, although, in Israel, schools close from the second day for the whole week of Hanukkah. Many families exchange small gifts each night, such as books or games.

Fried foods are eaten to commemorate the importance of oil during the celebration of Hanukkah.

Kindling the Hanukkah lights

The single light each night for eight nights. As a universally practiced “beautification” of the mitzvah, the number of lights lit is increased by one each night. An extra light called a shamash, meaning “attendant” or “sexton,” is also lit each night, and is given a distinct location, usually higher, lower, or to the side of the others.

The purpose of the extra light is to adhere to the prohibition, specified in the Talmud (Tracate Shabbat 21b–23a), against using the Hanukkah lights for anything other than publicizing and meditating on the Hanukkah story. This differs from Sabbath candles which are meant to be used for illumination. Hence, if one were to need extra illumination on Hanukkah, the shamash candle would be available and one would avoid using the prohibited lights.

Some light the shamash candle first and then use it to light the others. So all together, including the shamash, two lights are lit on the first night, three on the second and so on, ending with nine on the last night, for a total of 44 (36, excluding the shamash).

The lights can be candles or oil lamps. Electric lights are sometimes used and are acceptable in places where open flame is not permitted, such as a hospital room. Most Jewish homes have a special candelabrum correctly referred to as a chanukkiah, not menorah, or oil lamp holder for Hanukkah, which holds eight lights plus the additional shamash light.

The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not for the “lighting of the house within”, but rather for the “illumination of the house without,” so that passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle.

Accordingly, lamps are set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street. It is customary amongst some Ashkenazim to have a separate menorah for each family member (customs vary), whereas most Sephardim light one for the whole household. Only when there was danger of antisemitic persecution were lamps supposed to be hidden from public view, as was the case in Persia under the rule of the Zoroastrians, or in parts of Europe before and during World War II.

However, most Hasidic groups light lamps near an inside doorway, not necessarily in public view. According to this tradition, the lamps are placed on the opposite side from the mezuzah, so that when one passes through the door he is surrounded by the holiness of mitzvoth.

Generally, women are exempt in Jewish law from time-bound positive commandments, however the Talmud requires that women engage in the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles “for they too were involved in the miracle.”

Candlelighting time

Hanukkah lights should burn for at least one half hour after it gets dark. The custom of the Vilna Gaon observed by many residents of Jerusalem as the custom of the city, is to light at sundown, although most Hassidim light later, even in Jerusalem. Many Hasidic Rebbes light much later, because they fulfill the obligation of publicizing the miracle by the presence of their Hasidim when they kindle the lights. Inexpensive small wax candles sold for Hanukkah burn for approximately half an hour, so on most days this requirement can be met by lighting the candles when it is dark outside. Friday night presents a problem, however. Since candles may not be lit on the Shabbat itself, the candles must be lit before sunset. However, they must remain lit until the regular time—thirty minutes after nightfall—and inexpensive Hanukkah candles do not burn long enough to meet the requirement. A simple solution is to use longer candles, or the traditional oil lamps. In keeping with the above-stated prohibition, the Hanukkah menorah is lit first, followed by the Shabbat candles which signify its onset.

Blessings over the candles

Typically three blessings (Brachot singular Brachah) are recited during this eight-day festival. On the first night of Hanukkah, Jews recite all three blessings; on all subsequent nights, they recite only the first two. The blessings are said before or after the candles are lit depending on tradition. On the first night of Hanukkah one light (candle or oil) is lit on the right side of the Menorah, on the following night a second light is placed to the left of the first, and so on, proceeding from right to left over the eight nights. On each night, the leftmost candle is lit first, and lighting proceeds from left to right.

Hanerot Halalu

During or after the lights are kindled the hymn Hanerot Halalu is recited.

ENGLISH: “We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except for to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations.”

Ashkenazi version: “Hanneirot hallalu anachnu madlikin ‘al hannissim ve’al hanniflaot ‘al hatteshu’ot ve’al hammilchamot she’asita laavoteinu bayyamim haheim, (u)bazzeman hazeh ‘al yedei kohanekha hakkedoshim. Vekhol-shemonat yemei Hanukkah hanneirot hallalu kodesh heim, ve-ein lanu reshut lehishtammesh baheim ella lir’otam bilvad kedei lehodot ul’halleil leshimcha haggadol ‘al nissekha ve’al nifleotekha ve’al yeshu’otekha.”

Hanukkah gelt (Yiddish for “money”) is often distributed to children to add to the holiday excitement. The amount is usually in small coins, although grandparents or relatives may give larger sums.

In Israel, Hanukkah gelt is known as dmei Hanukkah. The tradition of giving Chanukah gelt dates back to a long-standing East European custom of children presenting their teachers with a small sum of money at this time of year as a token of gratitude. The connection may be etymological: In Hebrew, the words “Hanukkah” (dedication) and “hinnukh” (education) come from the same root.

In time, money was also given to children to keep for themselves. According to Magen Avraham, poor yeshiva students would receive a gift of money from their Jewish benefactors on Hanukkah. In the 1920s, American chocolatiers picked up on the gift/coin concept by creating chocolate gelt.

Many Hasidic Rebbes distribute coins to those who visit them during Hanukkah. Hasidic Jews consider this to be a segulah for success.

Hanukkah foods

  • Potato latke made from Manischewitz brand mix frying in hot olive oil.
  • Sufganiyot / doughnuts at a Jerusalem bakery

There is a custom of eating foods fried or baked in oil (preferably olive oil) to commemorate the miracle of a small flask of oil keeping the flame in the Temple alight for eight days.

Traditional foods include potato pancakes, known as latkes in Yiddish, especially among Ashkenazi families. Sephardi, Polish and Israeli families eat jam-filled doughnuts (Yiddish: פאנטשקעס pontshkes), bimuelos (fritters) and sufganiyot which are deep-fried in oil. Bakeries in Israel have popularized many new types of fillings for sufganiyot besides the traditional strawberry jelly filling, including chocolate cream, vanilla cream, caramel, cappucino and others.

In recent years, downsized, “mini” sufganiyot containing half the calories of the regular, 400-to-600-calorie version have become popular.

There is also a tradition of eating cheese products on Hanukkah recorded in rabbinic literature. This custom is seen as a commemoration of the involvement of Judith and women in the events of Hanukkah.

Judith and Holofernes

The eating of dairy foods, especially cheese, on Hanukkah is a minor custom that has its roots in the story of Judith. The deutero-canonical book of Judith (Yehudit or Yehudis in Hebrew), which is not part of the Tanach, records that Holofernes, an Assyrian general, had surrounded the village of Bethulia as part of his campaign to conquer Judea.

After intense fighting, the water supply of the Jews is cut off and the situation became desperate. Judith, a pious widow, told the city leaders that she had a plan to save the city. Judith went to the Assyrian camps and pretended to surrender. She met Holofernes, who was smitten by her beauty. She went back to his tent with him, where she plied him with cheese and wine.

When he fell into a drunken sleep, Judith beheaded him and escaped from the camp, taking the severed head with her (the beheading of Holofernes by Judith has historically been a popular theme in art). When Holofernes’ soldiers found his corpse, they were overcome with fear; the Jews, on the other hand, were emboldened, and launched a successful counterattack. The town was saved, and the Assyrians defeated.

Dreidel
Dreidel with the gimel side up

The dreidel, or sevivon in Hebrew, is a four-sided spinning top that children play with on Hanukkah. Each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter. These letters are an acronym for the Hebrew words נס גדול היה שם (Nes Gadol Haya Sham, “A great miracle happened there”), referring to the miracle of the oil that took place in the Beit Hamikdash.

  • נ (Nun)
  • ג (Gimel)
  • ה (Hey)
  • ש (Shin)

On dreidels sold in Israel, the fourth side is inscribed with the letter פ (Pe), rendering the acronym נס גדול היה פה (Nes Gadol Haya Po, “A great miracle happened here”), referring to the fact that the miracle occurred in the land of Israel.

*Stores in Haredi neighborhoods sell the traditional Shin dreidels as well.

Some Jewish commentators ascribe symbolic significance to the markings on the dreidel.

One commentary, for example, connects the four letters with the four exiles to which the nation of Israel was historically subject: Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

After lighting the Hanukkah menorah, it is customary in many homes to play the dreidel game:

Each player starts out with 10 or 15 coins (real or of chocolate), nuts, raisins, candies or other markers, and places one marker in the “pot.”

The first player spins the dreidel, and depending on which side the dreidel falls on, either wins a marker from the pot or gives up part of his stash.
 
 
The code (based on a Yiddish version of the game) is as follows:

  • Nun–nisht, “nothing”–nothing happens and the next player spins
  • Gimel–gants, “all”–the player takes the entire pot
  • Hey–halb, “half”–the player takes half of the pot, rounding up if there is an odd number
  • Shin–shtel ayn, “put in”–the player puts one marker in the pot
  • Another version differs:
  • Nun–nim, “take”–the player takes one from the pot
  • Gimel–gib, “give”–the player puts one in the pot
  • Hey–halb, “half”–the player takes half of the pot, rounding up if there is an odd number
  • Shin–shtil, “still” (as in “stillness”)–nothing happens and the next player spins

The game may last until one person has won everything.

The dreidel is believed to commemorate a game devised by the Jews to camouflage the fact that they were studying Torah, which was outlawed by Greeks.

The Jews would gather in caves to study, posting a lookout to alert the group to the presence of Greek soldiers. If soldiers were spotted, the Jews would hide their scrolls and spin tops, so the Greeks thought they were gambling, not learning.
 
Symbolic importance

The classical rabbis downplayed the military and nationalistic dimensions of Hanukkah, and some even interpreted the emphasis upon the story of the miracle oil as a diversion away from the struggle with empires that had led to the disastrous downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans.

With the advent of Zionism and the state of Israel, these themes were reconsidered.

In modern Israel, the national and military aspects of Hanukkah became, once again, more dominant.

In North America especially, Hanukkah gained increased importance with many Jewish families in the latter half of the 20th century, including large numbers of secular Jews, who wanted a Jewish alternative to the Christmas celebrations that often overlap with Hanukkah. Though it was traditional among Ashkenazi Jews to give “gelt” or money coins to children during Hanukkah, in many families this has changed into gifts in order to prevent Jewish children from feeling left out of the Christmas gift giving.

While Hanukkah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday, as indicated by the lack of religious restrictions on work other than a few minutes after lighting the candles, in North America, Hanukkah has taken a place equal to Passover as a symbol of Jewish identity. Both the Israeli and North American versions of Hanukkah emphasize resistance, focusing on some combination of national liberation and religious freedom as the defining meaning of the holiday. CLICK IMAGE TO SHOP
 

Before kindling the Chanukah lights on the first night of Chanukah, Saturday night, December 8 2012, (or if you’re kindling the Chanukah lights for the first time this year) recite all three blessings. On every subsequent night only the first two are recited.

Recited only on the first night (or the first time lighting this Chanukah):

1. Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech ha-olam a-sher ki-de-sha-nu be-mitz-vo-tav ve-tzi-va-nu le-had-lik ner Cha-nu-kah.

2. Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech Ha-olam she-a-sa ni-sim la-avo-te-nu ba-ya-mim ha-hem bi-zman ha-zeh.

3. Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech Ha-olam she-heche-ya-nu ve-ki-yi-ma-nu ve-higi-a-nu liz-man ha-zeh.

Translation:

1. Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.

2. Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.

3. Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.

 

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