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Focus On Hanukkah

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Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights

Adele Reinhartz

On the 24th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev—the evening of December 20 in the secular calendar this year—Jews the world over will light a single candle in their eight-branched Hanukkah menorah (also called the Hanukkiyah- חנוכיח) and thereby inaugurate the eight-day celebration of the festival of Hanukkah (חנוכה). On each successive evening, an additional candle will be lit; by the eighth night the spirit of joy and celebration that has been building all week comes to its fullest expression.

Jews are of course not the only people to celebrate light around the time of the winter solstice. As fall deepens into winter, Christians prepare to celebrate Christmas by lighting Advent candles, stringing lights on or outside their homes, and setting up trees trimmed with light in their living rooms. Light is prominent part of other winter festivals, such as the Hindu festival of Diwali, the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa, and the Zoroastrians' celebration of Yalda. The appeal of a festival of light in the season when the sun makes its briefest appearance is obvious: the kindling of light brightens up not only the night but also our moods, and symbolizes the hope of the sun's return in a few months' time.

While Hanukkah may well have originated as a winter solstice holiday, perhaps modeled on the ancient Roman festival called Saturnalia, this festival, like the winter festivals in Christian and other cultures, has been given a historical narrative and chronological setting. In contrast to the other major Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, its origins are traced back to the era of the Maccabean revolt in the mid-second century BCE.

The traditional story—the one taught to Jewish children and popularized in songs—goes something like this: After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Macedonian empire, of which Judea was a part, was split among several of his generals, referred to collectively as the Diadochi. For the next 150 years, Judea was the small ball in a game of high-stakes table tennis between the families of two of these generals: the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. In 200 BCE, when King Antiochus III of Syria defeated King Ptolemy V Epiphanes of Egypt, Judea came under Seleucid control. His successor, King Antiochus IV, violated his father's practice of allowing the Jews to "live according to their ancestral customs," which included the right to continue to worship in the Temple. Antiochus IV forbade the practice of Jewish law including circumcision, forced Jews to eat pork or be put to death, and violated the Temple by setting up statues of pagan gods. A small Jewish army—or perhaps better, guerilla force—led by Judas Maccabeus and his four brothers, fought the powerful Seleucid army and won. The Temple then had to be re-sanctified to the worship of the God of Israel. Upon entering, Judah "the Maccabee" (the hammer), who had become the leader of the revolt against Antiochus IV, found a small amount of oil that he used to kindle the menorah in the Temple. Although the amount was only enough for one day, the oil miraculously burned for eight days and nights. The festival of Hanukkah, the name of which refers to the rededication of the Temple, was instituted to celebrate the miracle of the victory, and of the oil. The practice of lighting the menorah for eight successive nights is intended to commemorate the miracle of the oil, as are the oily foods traditionally prepared for the festival (see below).

To what degree this tale corresponds to historical fact is a matter of debate. Many scholars believe that Antiochus IV interfered in Jewish religious and political life not because he was an inherently evil ruler—as he is most often portrayed in popular lore—but in order to quell a bitter struggle, and perhaps even a civil war between two Jewish factions: --the Tobiads and the Oniads, whose leaders vied for the high priesthood. Tobias, the leader of the more Hellenized group, had been exiled to Syria; there he and his supporters lobbied Antiochus IV to enter Jerusalem and reinstate Tobias as high priest. In siding with the Tobiads, Antiochus escalated the conflict to the point of all-out war, with Judah and his family championing the cause of Onias, a less Hellenized contender. The family eventually succeeded in defeating the Seleucids, a story told in 1–4 Maccabees, part of the Greek (Septuagint) additions to the Hebrew Bible.

Whatever really happened, it is not the story that captures the imagination so much as the figure of Judah the Maccabee, who is generally depicted as a strong, masculine hero of the 1950s epic variety. Small children, boys and girls alike, delight in the paper/aluminum foil shields and swords that are the perennial choice of arts and crafts programs at Jewish schools and programs at this time of year.

Practices and Customs

The lighting of the candles is accompanied by three blessings. The first is the Hanukkah variation of the blessing that always accompanies the ritual candle lighting:

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us with God's commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Hanukkah.

The second is a blessing that acknowledges the miracle that is celebrated on this occasion.

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.

The third is the blessing that is recited on performing a ritual that takes place only once a year, on eating a new fruit, or otherwise doing something that is outside the realm of ordinary experience:

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.

After lighting candles, many families will extend the ritual by singing the traditional song, Maoz Tzur "Rock of Ages" (for a rendering in both Hebrew and English, see this clip; an alternate melody; and my favorite, a choral version).

The song, written in medieval Germany, has six stanzas. The first deals with the theme of divine salvation; the next four stanzas refer to four events—the Exodus, the return from Babylonian captivity, Haman's planned persecution (the story of Purim), and the Hasmonean success (the story of Hanukkah); concluding stanza (probably a later addition] expresses the desire for divine salvation.

Hanukkah is also associated with special foods. Jews who trace their origins to Eastern Europe fry up potato pancakes (latkes) and serve them up with sour cream, applesauce, or, for the calorie conscious, yoghurt. Jews who trace their origins to North Africa or Arab countries indulge in "soufganiyot"—fried dough desserts like doughnuts but without the holes, filled with cherry or strawberry jam. Here is the recipe for potato latkes (adapted from AllRecipes.com)


  • 2 cups peeled and shredded potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon grated onion
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 cup peanut (or other) oil for frying


  1. 1. Place the potatoes in a cheesecloth and wring, extracting as much moisture as possible.

  2. 2. In a medium bowl stir the potatoes, onion, eggs, flour, and salt together.

  3. 3. In a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until hot. Place large spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the hot oil, pressing down on them to form 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick patties. Brown on one side, turn and brown on the other. Let drain on paper towels. Serve hot!

And here is the recipe for Sufganiyot (adapted from Zabar's Recipe Blog).

Dough Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 5 teaspoons dry yeast
  • 1/3 cup plus a pinch of granulated sugar
  • 1 cup warm milk or water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil or melted vegetable shortening
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 1/4-5 cups all-purpose flour
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

Filling Ingredients

  • 2 cups jam or jelly of your choice, at room temperature (optional)
  • Granulated or confectioners' sugar, for dusting (optional)

Dough Preparation

  1. 1. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the warm water, yeast, and pinch of sugar. Allow the mixture to stand for a couple of minutes to allow the yeast to swell or dissolve. Stir in the remaining sugar, the milk, vanilla, eggs, oil, salt, and most of the flour to make a soft dough. Knead for 5 to 8 minutes, by hand or with a dough hook, adding more flour as needed to form a firmer dough that is smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a greased bowl, place the bowl in a plastic bag, and seal. (If not using it right away, you can refrigerate the dough at this point.) Let the dough rise for about 1 hour. Gently deflate it. (If the dough is coming out of the fridge, allow it to warm up for about 40 minutes before proceeding.)

  2. 2. Pinch off pieces of dough and form them into small balls, a little larger than a golf ball. Alternatively, roll the dough out to about 3/4 inch thick. Using a 2 1/2- or 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out rounds.

  3. 3. Cover the doughnuts with a clean tea towel and let them sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Heat about 4 inches of oil in a deep fryer or a heavy Dutch oven to about 385°F.

  4. 4. Add the doughnuts, 3 or 4 at a time, to the hot oil and fry until the undersides are deep brown. Turn over once and finish frying the other side. The total frying time will be no more than 1 1/2 to 3 minutes. Lift the doughnuts out with a slotted spoon and drain them well on paper towels.

  5. 5. To fill, make a small opening and spoon in jam or jelly or shake the doughnuts lightly in a paper bag with regular or confectioners' sugar.

The holiday also has its characteristic game: dreydl. Dreydls are small wooden, plastic, or metal spinning tops with four sides, each bearing one Hebrew letter—Nun נ ("n"), Gimel ג ("g"), He ה ("h") and Shin ש ("sh"). The letters stand for a Hebrew phrase: "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham", meaning "a great miracle happened there." In Israel, the dreydls substitute a "pey" ä , standing for "poh" meaning "here" for the letter "shin" é standing for "there".

Directions for playing can be found here.

The most well-known tradition, however, is the giving of gifts, primarily of parents to their children. Traditionally, the gifts would be monetary: a coin or two, real and or made of chocolate, and were only a minor part of the holiday. In North America, however, competition with Christmas, and the desire of parents to address their offspring's envy of their Christian friends, has led to a greater emphasis on gifts, with some parents giving their children a gift on each of the eight days. Needless to say, this development has been welcomed enthusiastically by toy manufacturers and retailers alike.

For a fun summary of the story and customs of Hanukkah, see the hit YouTube video by the Maccabeats, an a capella men's group from Yeshiva University in New York.

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