Saturday December 8, 2012 at sunset
About Hanukkah (Chanukah)
Due to the inherent nature of transliteration (the English rephrasing of Hebrew characters), there is an infinite number of ways which Hanukkah can be spelled, in English. Thus, there is no right or wrong way to spell Chanukah.
Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.
Hanukkah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, although not due to any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on the Jewish calendar.
The Story of Hanukkah (Chanukah)
The story of Hanukkah begins during the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.
More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Selucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.
According to tradition, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. 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 to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.
Hanukkah is not a very important religious holiday. The holiday's religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu'ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and you won't find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim! Hanukkah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of Maccabbees, which Jews do not accept as scripture.
The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a chanukiah that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shamash (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shamash candle is lit and three brachot (blessings) are recited: l'had-lik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking God for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time), and she-hechianu (a general prayer thanking God for allowing us to reach this time of year). On nights after the first, only the first two blessings are recited; the third blessing, she-hekhianu is only recited on the first night of holidays.
After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shamash candle, and the shamash candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour.
It is traditional to eat fried foods on Hanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but some gifts may be given to a couple's own young children. The only traditional gift of the holiday is "gelt," small amounts of money.
Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus' oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight.