Happy Chanukah

Origins of the Holiday

Hanukkah (sometimes transliterated Chanukkah) began on December 8 and will continue for eight days and nights this week, ending on December 16, 2012.

Hanukkah falls on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Since the Jewish calendar is based on lunar cycles, every year the first day of Hanukkah falls on a different day — usually sometime between late November and late December.
According to Jewish law, Hanukkah is one of the less important Jewish holidays — compared to other holidays such as Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Purim. Hanukkah has become much more popular in modern practice because of its proximity to Christmas.

Because many Jews live in predominately Christian societies, over time Hanukkah has become much more festive and Christmas-like. Typically celebrated in December, it has been misinterpreted as the Jewish equivalent for the Christian holiday Christmas, especially since Jewish children receive gifts for Hanukkah — often one gift for each of the eight nights of the holiday.
It has been suggested that many Jewish parents have labored to make Hanukkah extra special so their children won’t feel left out of all the Christmas festivities going on around them.

The Hanukkah Story

The Hebrew word “hanukkah” means “dedication” and this holiday commem orates the re-dedication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 B.C.E.

In 168 B.C.E. the Jewish Temple was seized by Syrian-Greek soldiers and dedicated to the worship of the god Zeus. Although this upset the Jewish people, many were afraid to fight back for fear of reprisals. In 167 B.C.E. the Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus made the observance of Judaism an offense punishable by death, and he also ordered all Jews to worship Greek gods.

In the village of Modiin, near Jerusalem, Greek soldiers forcibly gathered the Jewish villagers and instructed them to worship idols and eat the flesh of a pig — both practices forbidden by Jewish Law.

Mattathias, a High Priest, was ordered by a Greek soldier to acquiesce to their demands, but he refused. When another villager stepped forward and offered to cooperate on Mattathias’ behalf, the High Priest became outraged drawing his sword and killing the villager. He then turned on the Greek officer and killed him too. Mattahias’ five sons, with the aid of the other villagers, attacked and killed the remaining Greek soldiers.

After this, Mattathias and his family went into hiding in the mountains, where other Jews wishing to fight against the Greeks joined them. Known as the Maccabees, or Hasmoneans, these “rebels” eventually succeeded in retaking their land from the Greeks. Once the Maccabees had regained control they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem.

By the time the Maccabees recovered the Temple, it had been spiritually defiled by the Greeks who utilized it for worshiping foreign gods and practicing the sacrifice of swine. The Maccabees were determined to purify their Temple by burning ritual oil in the Temple’s menorah for eight days; however, much to their dismay, there was only one day’s worth of oil left in the Temple. They lit the menorah anyway and, to their surprise, the small amount of oil lasted the full eight days.

The Dreidel

A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side. It is used during Hanukkah to play a popular child’s game that involves spinning the dreidel and betting on which Hebrew letter will be showing when the dreidel stops spinning.

Dreidel is a Yiddish word that comes from the German word drehen which means to turn. In Hebrew the dreidel is called a sevivon, which comes from the root savov and also means to turn.

A game similar to the dreidel game was popular during the rule of Antiochus. During this period Jews were not free to openly practice their religion, so when they gathered to study Torah they would bring a top with them. If soldiers appeared, they would quickly hide what they were studying and pretend to be playing a gambling game with the top.

Meaning of the Hebrew Letters on a Dreidel

A dreidel has one Hebrew letter on each side. Outside of Israel, those letters are: Nun, Gimmel, Hay and Shin, which stand for the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham.” This phrase means “A great miracle happened there [in Israel].”
After the State of Israel was founded in 1948 the Hebrew letters were changed for dreidels used in Israel. They became: Nun, Gimmel, Hay and Pey, which stand for the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Po.” This means “A great miracle happened here.”

The miracle referred to in both versions of the Hebrew phrase is the miracle of the Hanukkah oil, which lasted for eight days instead of one.

How to Play the Dreidel Game Any number of people can play the dreidel game. At the beginning of the game each player is given an equal number of gelt (Hanukkah gelt refers to either money given as a gift on Hanukkah, or more commonly today, to a coin shaped piece of chocolate. Usually the chocolate coin is wrapped in gold or silver foil and given to children in small mesh bags on Hanukkah) pieces or candy, usually 10-15.

At the beginning of each round, every player puts one piece into the center “pot.” They then take turns spinning the dreidel, with the following meanings assigned to each of the Hebrew letters:

Nun means “nichts,” which means “nothing” in Yiddish. If the dreidel lands with a nun facing up the spinner does nothing.

Gimmel means “ganz,” which is Yiddish for “everything.” If the dreidel lands with the gimmel facing up the spinner gets everything in the pot.

Hay means “halb,” which means “half” in Yiddish. If the dreidel lands with a hey facing up the spinner gets half of the pot.

Shin means “shtel,” which is Yiddish for “put in.” Pey means “pay.” If the dreidel lands with either a shin or a pey facing up the player adds a game piece to the pot.

If a player runs out of game pieces they are “out.”

Children usually play for a pot of gelt, which are chocolate coins covered in gold colored tin foil, but they can also play for candy, nuts, raisins — anything really!

History of Hanukkah GeltThe word “gelt” is actually the Yiddish word for money.

It’s unclear when the tradition of giving children money on Hanukkah began and there are several competing theories. The most likely source for the tradition comes from the Hebrew word for Hanukkah. Hanukkah is linguistically connected to the Hebrew word for education, hinnukh, which led many Jews to associate the holiday with Jewish learning. In late medieval Europe it became a tradition for families to give their children gelt (money) to give to the local Jewish teacher on Hanukkah as a gift to show appreciation for education. Eventually it became customary to give coins to the children as well to encourage their Jewish studies.

Hanukkah Gelt TodayMany families continue to give their children actual monetary “gelt” as part of their Hanukkah celebrations today. Generally children are encouraged to donate this money to a charity as an act of tzedakah to teach them about the importance of giving to those in need.

In the early 20th century an American chocolatier came up with the idea of making coin shaped pieces of chocolate wrapped in gold or silver foil as Hanukkah gelt to give to children, chocolate being a more appropriate gift than money, especially for small children. Today chocolate gelt is given to children of all ages throughout the Hanukkah celebration. When it is not eaten outright, children also use chocolate Hanukkah gelt to play dreidel.

The Menorah

A Hanukkiyah is type of Menorah with eight candleholders in a row and a ninth candleholder set a little above the others. A Menorah is a candelabrum that has seven branches and was used in the Temple before it was destroyed in 70 CE.

During the Hanukkah holiday a hanukkiyah is used to symbolize and commemorate the miracle of the oil used by the Macabees to restore the purity of the Temple after they recaptured it from the Greeks. According to the Hanukkah story, once Jewish revolutionaries had retaken the Temple from the Syrians, eight days’ worth of oil were needed to complete the ritual purification, but they were only able to find one day’s worth of oil. They lit the menorah anyway and miraculously the oil lasted for eight full days.

Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and a candle is lit on the hanukkiyah on each of those days. One candle is lit the first night, two the second, and so on, until the final night when all the candles are lit. Each of the eight candles is lit with a “helper” candle known as the shamash. The shamash is lit first, is used to light the other candles, and then is returned to the ninth candle spot, which is set apart from the others.

When lighting the Hanukkah Menorah, it is customary to light the candles from left to right, with the newest candle being in the leftmost spot. This custom arose so that the candle for the first night would not always be lit before the others, which might be taken to symbolize that the first night was more important than the other nights of Hanukkah.

Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah is one of the most important parts of celebrating the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. This ritual has been observed since the destruction of the Temple in commemoration of the miracle of the Hanukkah lights. One menorah is usually lit for the entire family, though sometimes children like to have their own menorahs to light during the holiday.

The Hanukkah menorah is usually lit after nightfall, when stars appear in the sky. Originally the menorah was then placed outside a home to the left of the doorpost, thereby positioning it opposite the mezuzah (a blessing) on the right. But today the lit menorah is more commonly placed in or near a window. Both options are fine since the most important thing is that passersby are able to see the lit menorah and be reminded of the Hanukkah miracle.

It is forbidden to use the light of the hanukkiyah for any purpose other than commemorating the Jewish holiday. For example, it would be disrespectful to use the hanukkiyah to light the dinner table or to read by.

Hanukkah Candle Lighting BlessingsEvery night during Hanukkah members of the family will gather around their menorahs and recite the blessings below as part of the candle lighting ceremony. The first two blessings are recited each night. The third blessing is only recited on the first night of Hanukkah, when the menorah is kindled for the first time.

Blessing 1: Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.

Blessing 2: Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season.

Blessing 3: Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has kept us alive, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this time.