Hanukkah is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays. The eight-day-long winter festival begins on the 25th day of Kislev, the ninth month of the Jewish calendar. This year, the celebrations will extend from November 28th, 2021, to December 6th, 2021. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the victory of good over evil and is a happy occasion with many fun traditions.
The lighting of the hanukkiah, or menorah
The most important of all Hanukkah traditions is lighting the hanukkiah — a special nine-branched candelabra or menorah. Eight candles are lit one at a time to mark each day of the festival. A ninth candle, known as the shamash (helper), is used to light the others.
The ancient custom is credited to a miracle story outlined in the Talmud, a book of Jewish religious teachings. It dates back over 2,000 years to when Antiochus IV Epiphanes captured Judea, or the Land of Israel. The Greek king, who ruled from 175 BC to 164 BC, banned Judaism and forced the Jewish people to worship Greek deities instead. He also violated Jerusalem's Second Temple by installing an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs — considered non-kosher, or not fit to eat in the Jewish culture — inside the sacred structure.
A successful uprising led by a Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons helped reclaim the temple. When worshippers entered, they found a small quantity of oil — enough to light the menorah for a single day. However, the candles burned for eight consecutive days, providing them enough time to prepare a fresh batch of kosher oil. Soon after, a festival was declared to commemorate the miracle oil, and Hanukkah, or Chanukah — "dedication" in Hebrew — was born.
Delicious fried food
As with most festivals, food plays a pivotal role in the celebration. To honor the miracle oil that led to the start of the holiday, many traditional Hanukkah delicacies are deep-fried. Among the favorites are latkes, or potato pancakes, and jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyot. Beef brisket, matzo ball soup and, challah — a braided egg bread — are also enjoyed during Hanukkah.
After dinner, it's time for games! The most popular one involves a dreidel — a spinning top with Hebrew lettering engraved on each of its four sides. Together, they form the acronym for "Nes Gadol Haya Sham"— Hebrew for "a great miracle happened here."
The game is pretty simple. All players receive an equal number of game pieces, such as dried fruit or chocolate coins, called gelt. Participants donate a game piece to a shared pot and then take turns spinning the dreidel. Depending on the side it lands on, they can lose a game piece to the shared pot or hit the jackpot and take the entire stash.
The origins of the lively game are unclear. Some people believe it dates back to the reign of King Antiochus IV. Prohibited from practicing Judaism in public, Jews would often read the Torah secretly. Upon seeing Greek troops, they would hide the sacred texts and pretend to play with the dreidel. Others, however, think the game has European origins.
Initially, gelt— either real coins or chocolate-covered ones — were the gift of choice during Hanukkah. However, thanks to the festival's proximity to Christmas, the tradition has evolved to more substantial gifts. Jewish kids are especially fond of the ritual given that they receive a gift, or two, for eight consecutive days!