Chanukah 101

Every parent comes to Jewish holidays with a different set of knowledge and experiences. We offer this content to you as a possible refresher to what you may have learned in your own childhood Jewish education,  as a set of resources for those observing Chanukah for the first time, or as an enhancement or new perspective for those with existing holiday knowledge. This is by no-means a fully comprehensive “course” on the holiday, but it serves to support you in your family celebration and in the education you provide your child(ren). 

Table of Contents

Note: This content has been edited, adapted, or quoted from many sources.  Please see the footnotes for links to the original content sources.

When is Chanukah 2021/5782?

Chanukah begins at sundown on Sunday, November 28th (first candle). The last candle is lit at sundown on Monday, December 6th (eighth candle).(1) Visit hebcal.com to put in your zip code and find the recommended candle lighting time for each night of Chanukah. On the Friday night of Chanukah, your chanukiah (Chanukah menorah) is lit before lighting the Shabbat candles. Chanukah begins on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar. This typically falls in December on the Gregorian calendar.(2)

What does Chanukah mean?

Chanukah means dedication in Hebrew.(3) Chanukah is referred to as the: Festival of Lights, Feast of Dedication, and Feast of the Maccabees.(2)

What does Chanukah commemorate?

Chanukah commemorates the Maccabean triumph over [forced] Greek religious and cultural assimilation and the rededication of the Second Temple in 167 BCE.(2) Being unwilling to abandon their Jewish faith or be put to death, Matityahu the Priest and his son Judah Maccabee led a successful rebellion against Seleucid Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Once they regained the Temple, the Maccabees relit the Menorah with the one vessel of pure oil they found. Even though the vessel had only enough oil to burn for one day, it stayed lit for eight days.(6)

The four books of the Maccabees are not included in the traditional Jewish canon. The Jewish canon consists of the books found in the TaNaKh. Maccabees are considered apocrypha. That history can be found in an article entitled, ‘Why the Maccabees Aren’t in the Bible’ on www.myjewishlearning.com.(8)

What is a Chanukah menorah/Chanukiah?

A Chanukah Menorah is called a chanukiah. A chanukiah is different from a traditional menorah which has seven branches, all of equal height. A chanukiah is a nine-branched menorah which represents the miracle of the oil lasting for eight nights back in the time of the Maccabees. The ninth candle is called a shamash which means helper in Hebrew. The shamash is usually raised, lowered, or separated from the other eight candles.(16) The shamash is lit first and then used to light each of the other candles on the chanukiah. It is customary to let the shamash burn along with the other candles, not to blow it out.(10)

Candles are placed in the chanukiah from right to left, just as Hebrew is read. They are lit, however, from left to right, lighting the newest candle first. The Chanukah blessings are recited after candles are placed in the chanukiah, but before the first candle is lit.(14)

Our most famous squabbling scholars, Hillel and Shammai, disagreed on how to light the chanukiah. Beit [The House of] Shammai said that we should light all eight candles on the first night and then decrease one candle each night. On the last night of Chanukah, we would light only one candle. Beit [The House of] Hillel said that the number of candles should increase each night, with the last night ending in all eight candles burning. We follow Hillel’s version today, according to Rabbi Yossi bar Zevida, a rabbinic sage from the third-sixth century, because as the number of candles increase each day, so too does the idea that holiness should increase and never decrease.(21)

And, have you ever heard of Pirsum haNes?! That is the Hebrew term for publicly showcasing the Chanukah miracle. According to Rambam’s Laws of Hanukkah 3:3 and 4:5, 7 – Pirsum haNes 1: “Because of this, the sages of that generation ruled that the eight days beginning with the twenty-fifth of Kislev should be observed as days of rejoicing and praising the Lord.” Lamps are lit in the evening over the doors of homes, on each of the eight nights, so as to publicize the miracle.(7) Scholar David Hartman, in an article entitled Hanukkah: Reflections on Courage and Particularity wrote, “Placing the Chanukah menorah near the window for all to see represents the great message which Jews convey to the world: we choose not to hide the flame of our spiritual tradition within the secluded confines of our people, our family, but rather we wish to have our flame radiate light in the market places of history.”(22)

What blessings are recited on Chanukah?

On Chanukah, the Jewish people traditionally recite three blessings; the third blessing is for the first night only.(14) These blessings thank God for the Chanukah lights, for the acts of our ancestors, and for bringing us safely to the holiday season.

First blessing:
Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe, Who made us holy through Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah lights.(14)

Second blessing:
Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe, Who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in those ancient days at this season.(14)

Third blessing(first night only): 
Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.(14)

*Downloadable blessings sheet
https://www.myjewishlearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/hanukkah-candles-blessings-2.pdf

*YouTube videos of each blessing
https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-hanukkah-blessings/

What should I know about dreidels?

A dreidel, sevivon in Yiddish, meaning “to turn around,”(15) is a four-sided top with different Hebrew letters on each side.(12) Most dreidels contain the letters: nungimmelheyshin. This creates the Hebrew phrase nes gadol haya sham, which means “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the miracle of Chanukah. On dreidels in Israel, where the Chanukah miracle happened, the shin is replaced with a pey. Israeli dreidels create the phrase nes gadol haya po meaning “a great miracle happened here.”(11)

The story of the dreidel is that dreidels were used as a ruse when Jews were prohibited from studying Torah. Rather than abandoning Torah study, Jews studied secretly. As soldiers approached, Jews would hide their scrolls and act like they were playing a childish game of tops.(11) 

Click the following link to watch a video and/or print instructions on how to play dreidel. Dreidel can be played with Chanukah gelt (read about under traditional Chanukah foods), coins, or any other small exchangeable items. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1m7PKnhWEl0&t=14s

What are traditional Chanukah foods?

Chanukah is known for the miracle of the oil, so Chanukah foods are symbolically fried in oil. Traditional foods include potato pancakes known as latkes in Yiddish and levivot in Hebrew.(3) Levivot also refers to any small fried food. The Sephardim, Jews with Spanish origins, are also known to make bimuelos or fried dough balls.(4)(5) Jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyot in Hebrew, are a Chanukah delight.(3) And, who can forget about Chanukah chocolate, known as gelt, the Yiddish word for money?(3)

What are common Chanukah greetings?

Chag Urim Sameach means “Happy Festival of Lights.” Chag Sameach means “Happy Holiday.” Chanukah Sameach means “Happy Chanukah.”(17)

Why is Chanukah considered a minor holiday?

Minor Jewish holidays are known as holidays whose observance isn’t prescribed in the Torah. Major Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Passover are mentioned in the Torah and are days in which many rituals and traditions are customary as is the practice of not working.(13) Since Chanukah, a historical event commemorating the Maccabean Revolt, took place centuries after the Torah was written and codified, the four books of the Maccabees are not found in the Torah. The books of the Maccabees are apocrypha. That history can be found in an article entitled, ‘Why the Maccabees Aren’t in the Bible’ on www.myjewishlearning.com.(8)

Where can we find Chanukah mentioned within traditional Jewish text sources?

The Talmud includes a rabbinic debate about how to LIGHT the chanukiah and where to place it.(21)  However, we can learn about the origin of Chanukah in Josephus’s Antiquities (93 CE) Book 12, Chapter 7, Part 7: “Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs when after a long time of intermission they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival on account of the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.”

Do Jews traditionally exchange gifts on all eight nights of Chanukah?

Gift giving for Chanukah is a newer practice in the United States. Jews traditionally associated gift giving with the Jewish holiday of Purim. As Christmas became more commercialized, and due to its close proximity to Chanukah, there was a shift in the gift giving holiday from Purim to Chanukah.(19) Families choose to do many different things when it comes to Chanukah. Some give children one gift every night. Some don’t associate gifts with the holiday at all. Some donate money to charitable causes known as tzedakah meaning “charity.”(20) Some volunteer to help others during this time as it is giving gifts of loving kindness, known as gimilut chasadim in Hebrew. There is no right or wrong way to go!

How did blue and white become associated with Chanukah?

In 1860, Jewish poet Ludwig August von Frankl wrote a poem entitled, Zivei Eretz Yehudah “The Colors of Judah.”(18) “Blue and white are the colors of Judah,” likely referring to the Jewish prayer shawl the tallit. From that point forward, blue and white became associated with Israel, Judaism, and eventually Chanukah.(16)

Footnotes

  1. https://www.hebcal.com/hebcal?v=1&maj=on&min=on&nx=on&mf=off&ss=off&mod=off&i=off&lg=s&set=off&yt=H&year=5782#cal-2021-11 
  2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hanukkah
  3. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-2021/ 
  4. https://toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/levivot-with-sweet-syrup/ 
  5. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/who-are-sephardic-jews/ 
  6. https://www.aish.com/h/c/ 
  7. http://ohavizedek.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/the-freedom-to-be-different-2018.pdf 
  8. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/omitting-the-maccabees/
  9. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/827/the-maccabean-revolt/
  10.  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/what-is-the-shamash-candle-for-hanukkah/
  11.  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/symbols-of-hanukkah/
  12.  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-vocabulary/
  13.  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/why-hanukkah-is-actually-a-minor-holiday/
  14.  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-hanukkah-blessings/ 
  15.  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/how-to-play-dreidel/
  16.  https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/519439/25-questions-about-hanukkah-answered
  17.  https://reformjudaism.org/learning/answers-jewish-questions/what-greetings-are-appropriate-hanukkah
  18.  https://amenvamen.com/hanukkah-colors 
  19.  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-gifts/
  20.  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tzedakah-101/ 
  21.  https://www.jewishedproject.org/news/finding-hope-hanukkah-lights 
  22. https://www.hartman.org.il/hanukkah-reflections-on-courage-and-particularity/