Hanukkah - The Jewish Festival of Lights

A Hanukkah Menorah/Hanukkiyah and Dreidels

Hanukkah (sometimes spelt Chanukah) is the Jewish Festival of Lights and it remembers the rededication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, in Israel. This happened in the 160s BCE/BC (before Jesus was born). (Hanukkah is the Hebrew and Aramaic word for 'dedication'.) Hanukkah lasts for eight days and starts on the eve of the Kislev 25, the month in the Jewish calendar that occurs at around the same time as December. Because the Jewish calendar is lunar (it uses the moon for its dates), Kislev can happen from late November to late December.

In 2023, Hanukkah was from the evening of Thursday, 7th December until the evening of Friday, 15th December. In 2024, Hanukkah will be from the evening of Tuesday, 25th December until the evening of Tuesday, 2nd January 2025.

During Hanukkah, on each of the eight nights, a candle is lit in a special menorah (candelabra) called a 'hanukkiyah'. There is a special ninth candle called the 'shammash' or servant/helper candle which is used to light the other candles. The shammash is often in the center of the other candles and has a higher position.

On the first night two candles are placed in the hanukkiyah - the shammash and one candle in the most right position in the menorah. On the second night, another candle is added from right to left. This carries on through the eight nights until all the candles are in place and lit on the eighth and final night of the festival. The candles are added from the right to left as the Hebrew language is written/read from right to left. The candles are lit from the left to right with the newest candle first.

A special blessing, thanking God, is said before lighting the candles and a special Jewish hymn is often sung. The menorah is put in the front window of houses so people passing can see the lights and remember the story of Hanukkah. Most Jewish families and households have a special menorah and celebrate Hanukkah.

To find out more about lighting the candles in a Hanukkah menorah, please see this excellent page on How to Light the Hanukkah Candles from the PJ Library... (goes to another site - there are audio versions of the Hanukkah blessings in English and Hebrew and a printable instructions sheet).

Hanukkah is also a time for giving and receiving presents and gifts are often given on each night. Lots of games are played during the time of Hanukkah. The most popular is 'dreidel' (Yiddish) or 'sivivon' (Hebrew). It's a four sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. The four letter are the first letter of the phrase 'Nes Gadol Hayah Sham' which means 'A great miracle happened there' (in Israel, 'there' is changed to 'here' so it's 'Nes Gadol Hayah Po'). Each player put a coin, nut or chocolate coin in a pot and the top is spun. If the letter is 'nun' (נ) come up nothing happens, if it's 'gimel' (ג) the player wins the pot, if it's 'hay' (ה) you win half the pot and if it's 'shin' (for 'there' ש) or 'pe' (for 'here' פ) you have to put another item into the pot and the next person has a spin!

A Hanukkah menorah on the Last Night of Hanukkah

Food fried in oil is traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Favourites are 'latkes' - potato pancakes and 'sufganiyot' - deep fried doughnuts that are then filled with jam/jelly and sprinkled with sugar.

The Story behind Hanukkah

About 200 BCE/BC Israel was a state in the Seleucid Empire (an empire ruled under Greek law) and under the overall charge of the King of Syria. However, they could follow their own religion and its practises. In 171 BCE/BC, There was a new King called Antiochus IV, who also called himself Antiochus Epiphanes which means 'Antiochus the visible god'. Antiochus wanted all the empire to follow Greek ways of life and the Greek religion with all its gods. Some of the Jews wanted to be more Greek, but most wanted to stay Jewish.

The brother of the Jewish high priest wanted to be more Greek, so he bribed Antiochus so he would be come the new High Priest instead of his brother! Three years later another man bribed Antiochus even more to let him become the High Priest! To pay his bribe he stole some of the objects made of gold that were used in the Jewish Temple.

On his way home from having to retreat from a battle, Antiochus stopped in Jerusalem and he let out all his anger on the city and the Jewish people. He ordered houses to be burned down and tens of thousands of Jews were killed or put into slavery. Antiochus then went to attack the Jewish Temple, the most important building in Israel to Jews. The Syrian soldiers took all the treasures out of the temple and on Kislev 15 in 168 BCE/BC Antiochus put up a status of the Greek god Zeus in the center of the Jewish Temple (but it had the face of Antiochus!). Then on Kislev 25 he desecrated the most holy place in the temple and destroyed the Jewish holy scrolls.

Antiochus then banned practising the Jewish faith & religion (if you were found out you and all your family were killed) and made the Temple into a shrine to Zeus. There were many Jews killed for their faith. Soon afterwards a Jewish rebellion started.

It began when a 'former' Jewish Priest, called Mattathias, was forced to make an offering to Zeus in his village. He refused to do so and killed a Syrian Soldier! Mattathias's sons joined him and killed the other soldiers in the village. Mattathias was an old man and died soon after this, but his son Judah then took charge of the freedom fighters. Judah's nickname was 'Maccabee' which come from the Hebrew word for hammer. He and his troops lived in caves and fought an undercover war for three years. They then met the Syrians in open battle and defeated them.

When Judah and the fighters got back to Jerusalem, the Temple was in ruins and the statue of Zeus/Antiochus was still standing. They cleaned the Temple. The altar in the Jewish Temple was rebuilt and on Kislev 25 in 165 BCE/BC, exactly three years after the statue was put up, the altar and Temple was rededicated to God.

There are several theories about why Hanukkah is celebrated over eight nights. One legend says that when Judah and his followers went into the Temple there was only enough oil to burn for one night, but that it burned for eight nights. Another story says that they found eight iron spears and put candles of them and used them for lighting in the Temple.

Hanukkah and Christmas

The dates of Hanukkah and Christmas might well be associated, because Kislev 25 was when the Temple was rededicated and its 'nearest fixed date' in the Julian/Gregorian calendars was December 25th.