Traditions of Hanukkah

During Hanukkah, also known as Chanukah, families gather for an eight-day celebration, or “Festival of Lights,” to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, over 2,000 years ago.

According to history, a small group of Jewish rebels, known as the Maccabees, were successful in their fight against their oppressors, the Syrian-Greeks, who had defiled the temple by erecting an altar to Zeus. The temple had to be cleaned and rededicated to God.

In order to rededicate the temple, the Maccabees had to light a menorah that would burn within the temple at all times. However, they only had enough pure olive oil to last for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, leaving time to find a fresh supply of oil. Today, with nine branches, the menorah is lit, one candle at a time, each night during Hanukkah to celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days.

This celebration, which normally occurs in November or December (Dec. 10 through Dec. 18 this year), includes festivities like playing games, eating traditional foods that are fried in oil as a symbol of the oil from the temple, and music.

Dreidel is a gambling-type game where you spin four-sided wooden tops for M&Ms, chocolate coins, or other small items. Each dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” meaning “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the miracle of the oil.

Some of the traditional foods served at Hanukkah include favorites like fried potato latkes, fried jelly donuts (sufganiot), beef brisket, soft pretzels, butter cookies, kugel (a sweet, delicious cottage-cheese and noodle casserole) and many others delicacies. You can find recipes and different variations of traditional Hanukkah recipes online.

Traditionally, gift-giving was not a part of Hanukkah. Instead, gelt – a small amount of money or chocolate coins – was given to children. But, due to its proximity to Christmas, and the influence of modern culture, it has, for many contemporary Jewish families, become a custom to give each other a small gift on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.

Although not considered one of the more important holidays on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is widely recognized through its proximity to Christmas on the calendar, yet has been able to remain less commercialized than Christmas in the U.S., as it is celebrated more privately in homes and synagogues.

By Ann Luongo
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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