Hanukkah, What Is All The Fuss About

We all love Hanukkah and its beautiful traditions, and eating Sufganiyot (Jelly donuts) and Latkes / Levivot (potato fried patties, similar to tater tots and to Hash Browns), but why is that we celebrate this sweet holiday, full of family reunions, friends, and dinners, with loads of gifts, sweets, and fried food?

And for sure not forget, to play with dreidels (in Hebrew it’s called sevivon – you will understand the name later). Does it fall on the same day every year? Does it get everyone in the holiday spirit throughout December? Let us try and make some sense in all of it.

Let us start with what are we celebrating.

The eight-day Jewish celebration known as Hanukkah or Chanukah commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where according to legend Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt.

The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication,” and is thus named because we celebrate the rededication of the Holy Temple, as mentioned above. Also spelled Hanukkah (or variations of that spelling), the Hebrew word is actually pronounced with a guttural, “kh” sound, kha-nu-kah, not tcha-new-kah.

When do we celebrate Hanukkah?

Every year we celebrate Hanukkah for 8 days starting on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, the third month in the Hebrew – Lunar calendar, which results in every year celebrating Hanukkah in either the month of November or December of each year. This year Hanukkah is celebrated on 18th – 26th  of December 2022.

In the second century BCE, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who tried to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of their own Jewish mitzvah observance and the belief in our G_D almighty. Against all odds, a small band of faithful but poorly armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of our almighty G_D.

When they sought to light the Temple’s Menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum), they found only a single small jar of olive oil that should have lasted for one day, and that had escaped the contamination by the Greeks. They lit the menorah and the one-day supply of oil, miraculously, lasted for eight days, until new pure oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.

The miracle of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is described in the Talmud, committed to writing about 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees. The Talmud 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).

As a commemoration of these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah for all the years to come.

One of the names of Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights (Hag Haurim) because the Menorah of the Holy Temple was lit miraculously for 8 full days instead of one day, this is also the reason that the festival is observed by lighting the candles of a candelabrum with nine branches, commonly called a menorah or hanukkiah. One branch is typically placed above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight candles. This unique candle is called in Hebrew the shammash (“attendant”).

Each night, one additional candle is added to the first ones lit by the shammash until all eight candles are lit together on the final night of the festival.

The Talmud presents three options of how we light the candles in the Menorah:

  1. The law requires only one Menorah each night per household,
  2. A better practice is to light one Menorah for each member of the household on each night.
  3. The most preferred practice is to vary the number of lights and Menorahs each night.

Except in times of danger, the Menorahs were to be placed outside one’s door, on the opposite side of the mezuza, or in the window closest to the street.

On Friday afternoon, one must assure to light the menorah before Shabbat candles are lit, and the following evening they are to be lit only after Shabbat has ended.

The menorah is also lit in synagogues and other public places. In recent years, with the great help of the worldwide  Chabad organization, thousands of jumbo menorahs have been showing up in front of city halls and legislative buildings, and in malls and parks all over the world, and are lit every night in the right order of the candles, first night Shamash and one candle, 2nd night Shamash plus 2 candles, 3rd night Shamash plus. 3 candles are lit, till the 8th night it is the Shamash plus 8 candles of the Menorah are lit.

We recite special prayers before we light the candles of the Menorah, and we sing special Hanukkah Songs.

A large number of songs have been written on Hanukkah themes, perhaps more so than for any other Jewish holiday.

Some of the best-known are “Latke’le Latke’le” (Yiddish song about cooking Latkes), “Hanukkiah Li Yesh” (“I Have a Hanukkah Menorah”), “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Little Candles”), “Kad Katan” (“A Small Jug”), “S’vivon Sov Sov Sov” (“Dreidel, Spin and Spin”), “Haneirot Halolu” (“These Candles which we light”), “Mi Yimalel” (“Who can Retell”) and “Ner Li, Ner Li” (“I have a Candle”). Among the most well-known songs in English-speaking countries are “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and “Oh Chanukah”.

As the Chanukah miracle involved oil, it is customary to eat foods fried in oil. The Eastern-European classic is the potato latke (pancake/patties) garnished with applesauce, sour cream, sugar or jam,  and the reigning Israeli favorite is the jelly-filled sufganya ( Jelly doughnut).

In North America and in Israel it is also common to exchange presents or give children presents at this time. In addition, many families encourage their children to give tzedakah (charity) in lieu of presents for themselves.

And we can not miss the best part, with a full belly and some wine, or just being cheery, we play with dreidels.

Dreidels in Hebrew are called Sevivon from the Hebrew verb Sovev, which means turn, and as the dreidel turns and turns they call it Sevivon.

You can find the rules of the dreidel/sevivon game in our last years blog in this link:

Here are some recipes for some latkes (Potato Fritters/Patties)

And we sure need to make some sufganiyot (Jelly doughnuts), otherwise it’s not Hanukkah:

How about some games to play with family and friends:

A fun fact: Do you know that every year the National Menorah is lit in Washington D.C.

This Menorah is 30 feet tall, and you need a cherry picker to get to the top! 

So guys plan your Hanukkah ahead of time this year, invite some family, friends, and neighbors and show them how we celebrate the Holiday of light, the Miracle we celebrate every year, and how happy we can be. You can organize a Potluck party where everyone brings something, you can buy some jelly doughnuts and make some potato latkes, or as we call them in Hebrew Levivot, or the Swiss Rosti ( https://www.recipetineats.com/potato-rosti/ ), or hashbrowns or call it whatever, just make them.

Play some fun games with silly prizes, like a soap bar, or a small dreidel, or enough candles for lighting the Menorah on the next day, etc.

The closer we’ll get to the Holiday the more we will talk about Hannukah.

Disclaimer:

I never tried any of the recipes, I just picked up a few from Pinterest, you can find plenty of ideas for Hanukkah décor, recipes, and games. Templates for games over Google and Pinterest, so enjoy the ride.

Have an incredible December with lots of love, joy and happiness.