December 2017

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights

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The holiday of Hanukkah, celebrated by Jews around the world, commemorates the victory of the Maccabees (4th century BCE) against the Greeks and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days instead of one. Hanukkah, known as the Festival of Lights (also written Chanukah) starts on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev each year. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar based, every year the first day of Hanukkah falls on a different day – usually sometime between late November and late December. This year Hanukkah starts on the evening of December 12 and ends the evening of December 19.

The highlight of the holiday is the Hanukkah menorah or hanukiah. On each of the eight nights, starting on the first night with one candle (plus the shmash or lighter candle) we add one more candle from right to left (as Hebrew is read) until by the eighth night, all eight candles (plus the shmash) are lit. It is traditional to put the lighted hanukiah in a window to share the light of Freedom with the rest of the world.

Dreidel, a game of chance, which we play using M&Ms, is a tradition as well. The dreidel, a four-sided top, has a Hebrew letter on each side which represents the first letter of the quote, “Neis gadol hayim sham”, (A great miracle happened there). Players get a predetermined number of M&Ms, and then we spin the dreidel and wait to see which letter is facing up, nun, gimel, hay or shin. If it’s nun we get nothing, hay, we get half the pile, gimel, we get all the pile and shin we have to put M&Ms in. Obviously, it’s better to get gimel!

Hanukkah (like most other holidays) would not be the same without its traditional foods – potato pancakes fried in oil (my personal favorite) or doughnuts called sufganiyot, also fried in oil.

There is special Hanukkah music as well as gift giving during the eight days. It’s a very low-key holiday, mostly celebrated at home, but also at individual synagogues. This is in part because Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah, but in the Book of Maccabees, and was first celebrated in the Middle Ages.

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