All about Hanukkah

The story of Hanukkah

This is a festival which lasts eight days, commencing on 25 Kislev. It recalls the miracles and wonders that were wrought for our forefathers and marks the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks, after which the Temple was purified and religious freedom was restored, followed by political freedom.

The main events associated with Hanukkah occurred between 165 and 163 BCE. Hanukkah is, therefore, one of the festivals that originated in the post-Biblical period. The historic events of the festival are described in the First Book of Maccabees, one of the books of the Apocrypha. It is not actually a festival in the full sense of the term and no restrictions apply to work or to any other activity during its eight days.

The First Book of Maccabees sets out the steps taken by the Hellenist Greek-Syrians to eliminate the Jewish religion, among them the profanation of the Temple in Jerusalem, as part of their plan for Hellenization of their whole kingdom.

The altar was desecrated when the Syrian ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, commanded that it be used for offering sacrifices to pagan gods. After a three-year struggle, the Hasmoneans, under the leadership of Judah the Maccabee, conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the desecrated altar and built it anew. They also made new utensils for the Temple service, among them a menorah (candelabra), an incense altar, table and curtains.

According to Talmudic tradition, the eight days of Hannukah were determined in memory of the wonderful miracle that occurred at the rededication of the Temple. Not enough pure oil was found to light the Temple menorah, just one container which had been with the seal of the High Priest [and so was untouched and undefiled] but it had sufficient oil for only one day. A miracle happened and the oil in it lasted for eight days. “The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel [literally: praise. The reference is to Psalms CXIII - CXVIII, which are recited on all Festivals] and thanksgiving.” (Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b).
Ancient oil lamp. Photo: SXC

Laws and Customs

In order to glorify the festival and make the wonderful miracle widely known, the sages decreed that Hanukkah candles should be lit on all eight of the days of the festival and that the prayer service should be with the addition of the Hallel psalms and the “Al Hanissim” prayer. The latter gives prominence to the victory of faith and the victory of believers over evil and over wicked people.

On the first evening of Hanukkah, one candle is lit, with an extra candle each night, such that eight candles are lit on the eighth evening. This is why the name “Festival of Lights” was also given to Hanukkah.

The time for lighting the Hanukkah candles is as the stars appear. On the first night, three blessings are recited:

  1. “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to kindle the Hannukah lights.”
  2. “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who performed miracles for our fathers in those days, at this season.”
  3. “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.”

On the other nights, only the first two blessings are said.

The menorah is to be placed near the entrance to the home, outside in a prominent location or on a windowsill, to make the miracle widely known.
The lights of Hanukkah are sacred and their light may not be used for any purpose. An extra candle is, therefore, added and called the shamash (attendant). Its light may be used and it also serves for lighting the candles.

The candles are placed in the menorah from right to left but are lit from left to right. As they are being lit, Ma-oz Tzur is sung.

The menorah in which the candles are placed for lighting is, as a rule, of a pleasant, artistic shape. As with other works of Jewish art, the influence of time and place can be discerned in the various menorahs.

Hanukkah has several customs which add to its atmosphere. Doughnuts and latkes (potato pancakes) are fried in oil, in remembrance of the jug of oil found in the temple. The children are given games to amuse themselves, in particular a spinning top or sevivon. It is also customary to give the children some Hanukkah spending money (Hannukah gelt).

In modern Israel, Hanukkah has become the festival of national heroism because it was through this trait that the Jews won back their independence at the time of the Maccabees. To denote the heroism of the Maccabees in battle, a torch is carried by from the Tombs of the Maccabees in Modi’in to different locations in the country.