Hanukkah (חנוכה, alt. Chanukah), also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, and may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar.
The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a special candelabrum, the Menorah or Hanukiah, one light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. An extra light called a shamash, (Hebrew: "guard" or "servant") is also lit each night, and is given a distinct location, usually higher or lower than 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. (The shamash is used to light the other lights.)
Hanukkah is mentioned in the deuterocanonical or apocrypha books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. 1 Maccabees states: "For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. Then Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication...should be observed...every year...for eight days. (1 Mac.4:56-59)" According to 2 Maccabees, "the Jews celebrated joyfully for eight days as on the feast of Booths."
Hanukkah is also mentioned in the deuterocanonical books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. 1 Maccabees states: "For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. Then Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication...should be observed...every year...for eight days. (1 Mac.4:56-59)" According to 2 Maccabees, "the Jews celebrated joyfully for eight days as on the feast of Booths."
The martyrdom of Hannah and her seven sons has also been linked to Hanukkah. According to the Talmudic story and 2 Maccabees, a Jewish woman named Hannah and her seven sons were tortured and executed by Antiochus for refusing to worship an idol, which would have been a violation of Jewish law.
The Talmud presents three customs:
There was a dispute among the sages over how the last option was to be performed: either display eight lamps on the first night of the festival, and reduce the number on each successive night; or begin with one lamp the first night, increasing the number till the eighth night. The followers of Shammai favored the former custom; the followers of Hillel advocated the latter. As is the case in most such disputes, Jewish law followed Hillel. Except in times of danger, the lights were to be placed outside one's door or in the window closest to the street. Rashi, in a note to Shabbat 21b, says their purpose is to publicize the miracle. Hanukkah is also mentioned in the (older) Mishnah (TB Megillah 30b).
The Books of Maccabees are not part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), but are part of deuterocanonical historical and religious material preserved in the Septuagint. The Tanakh ends with the consequences following the events of Purim, and had already been codified many centuries earlier by the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesset HaGedolah).
Another source is the Megillat Antiochus. This work (also known as "Megillat HaHasmonaim", or "Megillat Hanukkah") 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 seventh 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.
By 175 BCE Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended to the Seleucid throne. At first little changed, but under his reign, the Temple in Jerusalem was looted, Jews were massacred, and Judaism was effectively outlawed. In 167 BCE Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple.
Many modern scholars argue that the king may have been intervening in an internal civil war between the traditionalist Jews in the country and the Hellenized elite Jews in Jerusalem. These competed violently over who would be the High Priest, with traditionalists with Hebrew/Aramaic names like Onias overthrown by Hellenizers with Greek names like Jason and Menelaus. As the conflict escalated, Antiochus took the side of the Hellenizers by prohibiting the religious practices the traditionalists had rallied around. This may explain why the king, in a total departure from Seleucid practice in all other places and times, banned the traditional religion of a whole people.
Antiochus' actions proved to be a major miscalculation as they provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi ("Judah the Hammer"). By 166 BCE Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted by Judah Maccabee and his brothers to celebrate this event. After recovering Jerusalem and the Temple, Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. But there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.
The version of the story in 1 Maccabees, on the other hand, states that an eight day celebration of songs and sacrifices was proclaimed upon rededication of the altar, and makes no mention of the miracle of the oil. A number of historians believe that the reason for the eight day celebration was that the first Hanukkah was in effect a belated celebration of the festivals of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. During the war the Jews were not able to celebrate Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret properly; the combined festivals also last eight days, and the Sukkot festivities featured the lighting of lamps in the Temple (Suk.v. 2-4). The historian Josephus mentions the eight-day festival and its customs, but does not tell us the origin of the eight day lighting custom. Given that his audience was Hellenized Romans, perhaps his silence on the origin of the eight-day custom is due to its miraculous nature. In any event, he does report that lights were kindled in the household and the popular name of the festival was, therefore the "Festival of Lights" ("And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights").
It has also been noted that the number eight has special significance in Jewish theology, as representing transcendence and the Jewish People's special role in human history. Seven is the number of days of creation, that is, of completion of the material cosmos, and also of the classical planets. Eight, being one step beyond seven, represents the Infinite. Hence, the Eighth Day of the Assembly festival, mentioned above, is according to Jewish Law a festival for Jews only (unlike Sukkot, when all peoples were welcome in Jerusalem). Similarly, the rite of brit milah (circumcision), which brings a Jewish male into God's Covenant, is performed on the eighth day. Hence, Hanukkah's eight days (in celebration of monotheistic morality's victory over Hellenistic humanism) have great symbolic importance for practicing Jews.
Hanukkah is celebrated by a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the 8-day holiday. Some are family-based and others are 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 People 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 for the whole week of Hanukkah. Many families exchange gifts each night, and fried foods are eaten.
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 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 passers-by 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 anti-semitic 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.
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, lamp, or electric) is lit on the right side of the Menorah, on the following night a second light is placed to the left of the first candle and so on, proceeding from right to left each night.
For the full text of the blessings, see List of Jewish prayers and blessings: Hanukkah
|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||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.|
The same prayer is added to the grace after meals. In addition, the Hallel Psalms are sung during each morning service and the Tachanun penitential prayers are omitted. The Torah is read every day in the synagogue, the first day beginning from Numbers 6:22 (According to some customs, Numbers 7:1), and the last day ending with Numbers 8:4.
Since Hanukkah lasts eight days it includes at least one, and sometimes two, Jewish Sabbaths (Saturdays). The weekly Torah portion for the first Sabbath is almost always Miketz, telling of Joseph's dream and his enslavement in Egypt. The Haftarah reading for the first Sabbath Hanukkah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7. When there is a second Sabbath on Hanukkah, the Haftarah reading is from I Kings 7:40 - 7:50.
The Hanukkah menorah is also kindled daily in the synagogue, at night with the blessings and in the morning without the blessings. The menorah is not lit on the Sabbath, but rather prior to the beginning of the Sabbath at night and not at all during the day.
Eating dairy foods, especially cheese, on Hanukkah is a minor custom that has its roots in the story of Judith, as related in the book of Judith (Yehudit or Yehudis in Hebrew). 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. 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.
Many argue that Holofernes was actually Greek, placing the events in the general time-frame of Hanukkah. The longstanding tradition that Judith was the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest, and consequently a sister of Mattathias the Hasmonean and an aunt of Judah the Maccabee, is how this story came to be associated with Hanukkah. There are many depictions of Judith and Holofernes in painting.
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 rapidly reconsidered. In modern Israel, Hanukkah was transformed into a celebration of military strength, a kind of antidote to what was perceived as the idea of the powerless Diaspora Jew that the Zionists felt that the Jews in the State of Israel needed to psychologically overcome.
In North America especially, Hanukkah gained increased importance with many Jewish families in the latter half of the twentieth 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 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 traditionally speaking is only a minor Jewish holiday, as indicated by the lack of restrictions on work other than a few minutes after lighting the candles, 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.
Potato pancakes, known as latkes in Yiddish, are traditionally associated with Hanukkah, especially among Ashkenazi families. There is a custom of eating foods fried or baked in oil (preferably olive oil), as the original miracle of the Hanukkah menorah involved the discovery of the small flask of oil used by the Jewish High Priest, the Kohen Gadol. This small batch of olive oil was only supposed to last one day, and instead it lasted eight.
Many Sephardic families as well as Polish Ashkenazim and Israel have the custom of eating all kinds of fruit-filled doughnuts (פאנטשקעס pontshkes), (bimuelos, or sufganiyot) which are deep-fried in oil, and of course all Kosher foods.
In Eretz Yisroel, the fourth side of most dreidels 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. Some stores in Haredi neighbourhoods may sell the traditional Shin dreidels.
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:
Another version differs:
The game may last until one person has won everything.
Some say the dreidel game is played 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.
Twentieth-century American chocolatiers picked up on the gift/coin concept by creating chocolate gelt, or chocolate shaped and stamped like coins and wrapped in gold or silver foil. Chocolate gelt is often used in place of money in dreidel games.
The dates of Hanukkah are determined by the Hebrew calendar. Hanukkah begins at the 25th day of Kislev and concluding on the 2nd or 3rd day of Tevet (Kislev can have 29 or 30 days). The Jewish day begins at sunset, whereas the Gregorian calendar begins the day at midnight. So, the first day of Hanukkah actually begins at sunset of the day immediately before the date noted on Gregorian calendars.