Hanukkah 101: Everything You Need To Know

On Dec. 10, at sunset, the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah will begin. Hundreds of Jewish households around the world will light their candles, say their blessings and sing in celebration. The ancient tradition has been popularized by cartoons such as the Rugrats and famed comedian and actor Adam Sandler. But what is Hanukkah? Many goyim, or non-Jews, view it as a sort of Jewish Christmas. However, that is the furthest from the truth. This holiday has a long tradition and is directly tied to the Jew’s belief in the survival of their people, as well as the connection of the family.

The origin of Hanukkah is quite old. Thousands of years ago, in the city of Jerusalem, the practice of Judaism was outlawed, and the sacred temple was desecrated and used for Greek worship. These actions caused the population of Jews to rise up and revolt against the ruling class of Greeks. Although much blood was shed, eventually the temple, along with Jerusalem, was reclaimed by the Jews.

As the temple was being restored, the priests needed oil to keep the menorah, the sacred candelabra, lit at all times. The Jews needed time to secure more oil as, after the revolution, only a tiny amount of oil was left, enough for one day. According to the story, this small amount of oil was able to keep the candles lit for eight days, giving the Jews enough time to find more. dreidel, gelt, and jewish stars for hanukkah celebrations Photo by Keshet: LGBTQ inclusion in the Jewish Community distributed under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license

Because of this story, it is traditional in a Jewish household to place a menorah on display. A traditional menorah has eight candles and one shamash, a ninth candle that is placed above or separates from the other eight. Each night of Hanukkah, one of the eight candles are lit, while the shamash is kept continually lit throughout the festival.

Besides the menorah, there are many traditions Jews partake in during Hanukkah. For instance, it is traditional to cook food in oil, because of the miracle of the sacred oil. A popular dish to make is latkes, which are made of potatoes that have been grated, mixed with egg and salt, then fried in oil. They are quite possibly one of the most delicious foods, especially when dipped in applesauce. Another popular treat during Hanukkah is jelly-filled donuts, called sufganiyah.

Another delightful tradition of Hanukkah is the game of dreidel. A dreidel is a four-sided top, usually made of wood or metal, with a single Hebrew letter carved into each side. Players start the game with 10-15 tokens, usually, pennies or foil-covered coins called gelt. They then sit in a circle around a central ‘pot.’ Each turn, a player will place a token into the pot and spin the dreidel. Depending on what letter the dreidel lands on, the player must complete an action. According to one tradition, the game can only end once all the latkes have been eaten!

Hanukkah is a very special holiday and is not to be conflated with Christmas, as the symbolism and traditions are barely similar. Jews celebrate Hanukkah to remind ourselves of how our people have managed to survive throughout the ages. This article, of course, covers the umbrella of information about Hanukkah, as there is a plethora of religious significance to the holiday as well as cultural significance. However, if you didn’t know before, here is a majority of what you need to know about Hanukkah!        

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