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Hanukkah - December Festivals

Growing up in a traditionally Christian culture, I never learned much about Hanukkah. I would see it mentioned on TV and in films. My assumption was that it was simply the Jewish Christmas. Never mind that it was obviously an older festival than Christmas.

Today, we will change my ignorance and perhaps your own, too. No longer shall I labor under the yoke of the uneducated. So let's start with the obvious first question. What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah - Festival of Lights

חנוכייה עם סופגניות

Hanukkah, or Chanukah, is a Jewish festival celebrated from the 25th day of the month of Kislev. The festival lasts for 8 days.

Kislev is the 9th month in the Jewish Calendar. This calendar counts the years from the biblical day of creation, reckoned by the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, to be in 3761 BCE. That makes the world 5,783 years old in 2022.

Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. The First Temple was demolished by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia after he conquered the Jewish state. Cyrus the Great conquered the region and allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.

While the Second Temple was largely respected for a while, it would eventually be desecrated by sacrifices to Zeus performed under command of Antiochus IV of Epiphanes. It turns out that gods don't like that sort of thing.

Antiochus wanted to suppress Judaism. His act of desecration led to the Maccabean Revolt, led by Judas Maccabeus. Judas led a guerrilla war against the Seleucid Empire. He eventually retook Jerusalem and performed a cleansing and rededication ritual in the Second Temple on Kislev 25.

The Miracle of the Oil

National Menorah 03 - 2014

Here's the part that I vaguely recall from Sunday school. Something about one bottle of oil lasting longer than it should have. The Christians didn't go too deeply into it, they had the fish and bread miracle to replace this one. Either way, it is seen as a sign of favor from their god.

The story goes that on the day of the rededication of the Second Temple, Judas could find only 1 cruse of oil bearing the seal of the high priest. Having the seal was important, despite there being no historical record of the high priest having such a seal or using it in such a way, except in the Talmud.

Beggars can't be choosers, so the Maccabees used the oil to light the holy Menorah. The miracle comes in how long the oil lasted. Burning well beyond its capacity, for 8 days. It only ran out when new holy oil could be secured.

That's why Hanukkah lasts for 8 days, and why it involves the ritualistic lighting of the Menorah.

Rituals of Hanukkah

The festival of lights, Hanukkah, has several rituals associated with it. Chief among these customs is the lighting of the Menorah. Every day, another candle is lit as a reminder of the miracle of the oil.

On the first day, two candles are lit on the 9 armed candelabra that is the Menorah. Starting with the candleholder in the center of the Menorah, called the Shamash. This candle, the Shamash, is used to light all the subsequent candles to come, starting with the rightmost candle on the same day as the Shamash.

The candles are left to burn for 30 minutes each night before sunset. Every night, another candle is added, until all 9 are burning. Before lighting the candles, a blessing is to be recited. Two blessings are said every night, with a third only recited on the first night of Hanukkah.

After the blessings have been recited, a prayer, Hanerot Halalu, is said. Then the first and last stanzas of the song, Ma’oz Tzur, is sung. Some people then recite certain Psalms (sacred songs of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity).

The final day of Hanukkah, Zot Hanukkah, marks the final seal of the season of Yom Kippur. It is a day for repentance.

Nonreligious Hanukkah Traditions

From my experience, the Jewish people are a joyous bunch. They celebrate with all their hearts. This applies to Hanukkah as well.

There are festive meals, time spent with family, traditional treats, games, and gifts for children. Families in countries that predominantly celebrate Christmas, might also exchange gifts and decorate their homes during this time.

Treats associated with Hanukkah are usually fried in oil to represent the miracle of the oil. Sufganiyot are jelly doughnuts traditionally enjoyed during Hanukkah. Latkes are potato pancakes that are also enjoyed during the Festival of Lights. I'm sure there are other treats I've never heard of.

Children play with a four-sided top called a Dreidel. On each side of the Dreidel is a Hebrew letter. The letters are the initials of the phrase, "nes gadol haya sham", which means "a miracle happened here".

Hanukkah starts on 19 December in 2022.

Happy Hanukkah



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