what is hanukkah?
Hanukkah is the eight-day Jewish festival of lights that usually takes place between the end of November and the end of December. Jews celebrate it by lighting the menorah, playing dreidel, and eating special holiday foods like latkes and sufganiyot. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by the Seljuks in 164 BC, and is one of the happiest Jewish holidays of the year.
It is also one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays. Although Hanukkah is considered a “minor” holiday (meaning it is not mentioned in the Torah and has minimal restrictions), it is anything but minor for many Jews. a 2018 survey found that two-thirds of Jewish Americans view Hanukkah as “one of the top three holidays.” and 60% of American Jews, as well as 73% of Israeli Jews, light candles every night. It’s clear to Jewish Americans and Israelis alike that Hanukkah is a uniquely popular holiday.
So, to sum it up, the “Festival of Lights” is a happy occasion in which we remember the miraculous rededication of the temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC. c. (read the hanukkah story below). Themes of this holiday include liberation from oppression, religious freedom, divine miracles, human agency, and courage.
when is hanukkah?
Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev and continues for eight days. this year, which corresponds to the afternoon of Sunday, December 18 until the afternoon of Monday December 26.
is it hanukkah in the bible?
chanukah is not mentioned in the bible because it arose from events that took place centuries after the bible was written, in the second century b.c. so where does the hanukkah story appear?
There are two key Hanukkah narratives, highlighting different aspects of the holiday. The first is found in the Apocrypha (the Apocrypha are ancient Jewish texts from the Biblical period that are not included in the Hebrew Bible), in First and Second Maccabees. the second version of the story appears in the talmud.
Let’s unpack these two Hanukkah stories and what they say about the meaning of this holiday. In the first and second Maccabees, we find the story of how a group of Jewish revolutionaries —led by Mathathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabean— rebelled against the empire of king antiochus iv, who wanted to destroy Judaism.
This is the story recorded in these apocryphal books: In 167 BC, Antiochus forces the Jews to assimilate into Hellenistic Greek culture and makes it a capital offense to observe Judaism. for example, he commands the Jews to make sacrifices to the Greek gods and to desecrate the Sabbath. he forbids circumcision of newborn sons, bible study, and any other observance of Judaism, making these actions punishable by death.
In response, Mattathias and his five sons, including Judah Macabee, lead a revolt against the oppressive monarch. These Jewish revolutionaries are known as the “Maccabees” or “Hasmoneans.” they are depicted as a group of untrained Jewish warriors fighting a war of beliefs and values against the world’s greatest army and empire.
They realize there are almost no odds in their favor, but they also know they have no choice. This is their mission and it’s up to God to decide if they win.
A year after the revolt, Mattathias is killed in battle and Judah assumes leadership of the Maccabees. In 164 BC, Jewish troops captured Jerusalem. they cry when they see the temple in a state of degradation from years of being under the control of the Seleucid empire. the Maccabees decide to rededicate the temple and restore it to its former glory. rededication takes eight days; this is the basis of the eight days of hanukkah.
So, the story found in the First and Second Maccabees is about the military victory of the Jews over the Seleucids, culminating in the rededication of the temple. what about the talmudic version of the story?
the talmud (on shabbat 21b) only briefly mentions military victory and instead focuses on an entirely different miracle. according to this account of history, when the victorious Maccabean fighters were rededicating the temple, a small amount of oil that was enough for a single day continued to burn for eight days. this is how the talmud describes it:
When the Greeks entered the sanctuary, they contaminated all the oils in the sanctuary by touching them. and when the Hasmonean monarchy defeated them and was victorious over them, they searched and found only one pot of oil that was affixed with the seal of the high priest, undisturbed by the Greeks
and there was enough oil there to light the candlestick for only one day. a miracle happened and they lit the candlestick for eight days. the following year the sages instituted those days and made them holidays with hallel recitation and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.
Then, the talmud emphasizes the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, suggesting that this is the basis of the holiday.
why do we celebrate hanukkah?
so what are we really celebrating on hanukkah? Are we celebrating the miraculous military victory of the Maccabees over the Selucid superpower, the miracle of oil, or the return of Jewish sovereignty, which has been fulfilled in our days with the modern state of Israel?
Rabbi norman lamm explored the answer to that question in this 1967 address on the two central themes of hanukkah: the “nes milhamah,” the miraculous victory of a few over the many and the weak over the strong”, and the “nes shemmen”, the miracle of the oil. “The nes milhamah represents the success of the political and military enterprise of the Maccabees, while the nes shemmen symbolizes the victory of the eternal Jewish spirit.”
Rabbi Lamm explains how, historically, different Jewish groups have emphasized one of these miracles over the other based on their unique context. for example, “secular Zionism spoke only of nes milhamah, military victory, because it was interested in establishing the nationalist base of modern Jewry.” and perhaps the rabbis in the talmud emphasized the divine miracle of the nes shemmen over the Jewish military achievement, since they themselves were experiencing the loss of Jewish sovereignty and power.
But the two issues are not mutually exclusive: indeed, Rabbi Lamm argues that they are both integral parts of the message of Hanukkah and of Judaism. Through this lens, the hanukkah miracle was not just the result of divine intervention, nor was it just due to courageous human action. Rather, it was because a group of brave Jewish revolutionaries became partners with God in bringing about the miraculous.
So, to sum it all up, at Hanukkah, we are celebrating the divine miracles God performed for our ancestors, the courageous human action, and the miraculous possibilities that can result from the sacred partnership each of us has with God.
why is hanukkah relevant today?
These are some timeless Hanukkah messages, but is there any way that Hanukkah is particularly relevant today? Unfortunately, as anti-Semitism has been on the rise in the US. uu. And globally, with a new survey finding that 1 in 4 Jewish Americans experienced anti-Semitism in the past year, the Hanukkah story speaks to the ways Jews continue to face discrimination.
So what can we learn from the Hanukkah story about how to respond to recent waves of anti-Semitism? Rabbi jonathan sacks offered the following answer to that question: “on hanukkah… the jews fought back and won. the macabees became a symbol of jewish activism, of refusing to live in fear… hanukkah tells us not to curse the darkness, but to bring light to the world. It tells us to fight and not to be afraid.”
In addition, the Hanukkah story offers a powerful message of hope and resilience to overcome difficult times. this is symbolized by the miraculous oil that continued to burn for eight days and the Maccabees’ perseverance in fighting despite the oppression they endured. This theme of resilience and endurance is expressed in the Hanukkah haftarah reading in Zechariah 4:6: “Not by might, nor by might, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”
rab sacks explained the hanukkah message this way: “sometimes our history has been written in tears, but we have survived every empire and civilization that tried to destroy us. our spirit, symbolized by hanukkah candles, is indomitable. Where others spread darkness, let us bring light.”
how to spell hanukkah
there are many different ways to spell hanukkah. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 24 variant spellings: chanucha, chanuchah, hanuca, hanucka, chanuca, chanucah, chanuca, chanukkah, chanuka, chanukah, chanukka, chanukkah, hanucah, hanuca, hanuccah, hanucha, hanuckah, hanuka, hanukah, hanukka , hanukkah , hanukkah, hanukkah and hanukkah.
but we do not recommend that you choose any of them. according to most sources, the most commonly used spellings are “hanukkah” and “chanukah”. as this website points out, there are good reasons behind both spellings. while “chanukkah” conveys the unique sound of the word in Hebrew, “hanukkah” might better resemble the Hebrew letter “het”, which is more similar to “h” in English. Also, writing it as “hanukkah” reflects how many English speakers pronounce it, with a soft “h.”
for the record, we spell it hanukkah here in unpacked, the same spelling used by many major Jewish organizations.
how to wish someone happy hanukkah
To wish someone happy Hanukkah, you can say “Happy Hanukkah!” or use one of the following options:
- hanukkah samej! (happy hanukkah)
- chag sameach! (happy holidays)
- chag urim sameach! (happy festival of lights)
- Dreidel (pronounced DRAY-dull) — A dreidel is a spinning top with four sides. Each side has a different Hebrew letter. Outside of Israel, the four letters are nun, gimmel, hey, shin, representing “nes gadol haya sham” (“A great miracle happened there”). In Israel, the shin is replaced with a peh, representing “nes gadol haya po” (“A great miracle happened here”). In addition to simply spinning the dreidel, children also use this spinning top to play the traditional Hanukkah game.
- Latkes (pronounced lot-kuhs) — “Latke” is Yiddish for “pancake.” In Ashkenazi Jewish homes, it is traditional to serve these potato pancakes fried in oil on Hanukkah, symbolizing the miracle of the oil. Latkes are commonly served with applesauce and sour cream. (Read up on their weird history here.)
- Menorah — “Menorah” means “lamp” in Hebrew. Technically, a “menorah” refers to the seven-branched candelabrum that was used in the Temple, and the nine-branched candelabrum we light on Hanukkah is a “chanukiah.” However, many people commonly refer to it as a “menorah.” The Hanukkah menorah holds nine candles: one for each night of the holiday, plus a shamash, or “helper” candle, which is used to light all the rest. The lights of the menorah remind us of the oil in the Temple that continued burning for eight days. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)
- Hanukkah Gelt — “Hanukkah Gelt” means “Hanukkah money” in Yiddish. These are chocolate coins wrapped in gold or silver foil. They are typically given to children as gifts or used as game pieces when playing dreidel.
- Sufganiyot — These are round jelly-filled donuts eaten in Israel and around the world on Hanukkah. The donut is fried in oil (representing the miracle of the oil) and is topped with powdered sugar.
chanukah is a jewish version of christmas?
Because Hanukkah falls around the same time as Christmas, many people believe it is “Jewish Christmas.” While it’s true that Hanukkah, Christmas, and other holidays at this time feature some sort of “lights,” Hanukkah is not simply the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. The two holidays commemorate different events: At Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. On Hanukkah, Jews remember the miraculous victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks and how the Jewish people triumphed over this oppression.
at the same time, hanukkah and christmas also have some things in common. both highlight the importance of getting together as a family. in Western countries, both holidays can involve the giving of gifts, and both have themes of hope and renewal.
how to light the menorah
light the menorah every hanukkah night after sunset (except on shabbat; light it before lighting the shabbat candles, before sunset). The menorah is meant to “advertise the miracle” of Hanukkah, so some choose to place it near a window so it’s visible to those outside.
On the first night, place a candle on the far right side of the menorah. light the shamash and recite the hanukkah blessings (see below). then use the shamash to light the first candle and return the shamash to its holder. candles must be self-burning and must continue to burn for a minimum of half an hour.
The next night, add another candle to the menorah, placing the first candle all the way to the right and then the next candle next to it. Repeat the above process, lighting the candles from left to right (ie light the newest candle first). repeat all of this for each hanukkah night.
Recite the following blessings when lighting the menorah (once you light the shamash, but before lighting any other candles):
בָּרech אַתָּonc אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹestarֵribנechנech מֶלֶךְ erior
baruch atah adonai elohenu melech haolam asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner chanukah.
blessed are you, lord our god, king of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to light the hanukkah light.
בָּרech. אַתָּonc אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹnaֵribנechנech מֶלֶךְ erior.
baruch atah adonai elohenu melech haolam sheasa nisim laavotenu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh.
blessed are you, lord our god, king of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days, in this time.
recite this only on the first night of hanukkah:
בָּרech אַתָּonc אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹnaֵribנechנech מֶלֶךְ erior
baruch atah adonai elohenu melech haolam shehecheyanu vekiyimanu vehigianu lizman hazeh.
blessed are you, lord our god, king of the universe, who has given us life, sustained us and allowed us to reach this occasion.
popular hanukkah songs:
adam sandler’s hanukkah song:
my yimalel of the macabbeats:
מי ימלל גבורות ישראל
אותן מי ימנה
הן בכל דור יקום הגיבור
בימים ההם בזמן הזה
מכבי מושיע ופודה
ובימינו כל עם ישראל
יתאחד, יקום ויגאל
who can retell the things that happened to us,
who can count them?
in every age, a hero or a sage
He came to our aid.
in days of old in the ancient land of israel
brave Maccabee led the faithful band
but now all israel must rise as one
redeem yourself through deeds and sacrifices.
traditional hanukkah songs:
It is customary to sing the following songs after reciting the Hanukkah blessings.
hanerot halalu (“these candles”):
these hanukkah candles we light
in honor of miracles, wonders
and salvationforged and wars
you fought, for our parents,
in days of yore and in present time
by the hands of your holy priests.
and during the eight days of Hanukkah
These lights, these lights will be sacred:
we have no right to use them
just to look at them and see,
so that we can thank and praise your great name
for the miracles and salvation you brought
and for your wonderful works.
ma’oz tzur (rock of ages)
This is the first paragraph of the lyrics:
מָעוֹז צוּר יְשׁוּעָתִי
לְךָ נָאֶה לְשַׁבֵּחַ
תִּכּוֹן בֵּית תְּפִלָּתִי
וְשָׁם תּוֹדָה נְזַבֵּחַ.
לְעֵת תָּכִין מַטְבֵּחַ
אָז אֶגְמוֹר בְּשִׁיר מִזְמוֹר
rock of the ages leave our song,
praised be your saving power;
you in the midst of the furious enemies,
It was our tower of refuge.
They attacked us furiously,
but your arm served us well
and your word broke his sword,
when our own strength failed us.
and your word broke his sword,
when our own strength failed us.