Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday in which we thank the Creator for his amazing salvation and great miracles created by Him at a time when the Greeks wanted to eradicate, God forbid, the Torah from the Jewish people. Hanukkah begins on the twenty-fifth of Kislev and lasts eight days. The central commandment of this holiday is the lighting of Hanukkah candles. The custom is widespread to make a Hanukkah meals these days, and although there is no obligation, the one who arranges them fulfills the commandment. The days of Hanukkah are considered days of joy, so it is forbidden to fast and mourn the deceased during these days.
History of the Festival
One of the greatest Jewish sages, Rambam writes (“The Laws of Hanukkah,” 3): “During the Second Temple, the Greek kings issued villainous decrees prohibiting the faith of Israel, did not allow the study of the Torah and the fulfillment of the commandments. They robbed the Jews and persecuted, broke into the Temple, and desecrated its holiness. They brutally oppressed Israel until the Most High saved him from their persecutors. Then the Hashmonaim (Hasmoneans), a family of high priests, strengthened, saved Israel from enemies, and set the king out of a kind. After that, Israel became independent for 200 years – right up to the destruction of the Second Temple. When Israel defeated and destroyed its enemies, it was the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev. Those who entered the Temple found only one jug of undefiled, sealed with the seal of the High Priest oil for the Menorah, which could last only one day. But it burned in the temple lights for eight days – until they prepared a new clean oil.”
Why is Hanukkah so Called?
The meaning of the word Hanukkah in Hebrew is “update.” The Temple defiled by the Greeks – after it was cleansed and the Hasmoneans consecrated it – was updated! The Rambam gives an additional explanation of the word Hanukkah – חנוכה, halving it: “khan” means “stopped” and “ka” – gematria, that is, the numerical value of these letters, 25. The holiday begins on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, the time when the Jews defeated the Greeks and rested from the war.
The Lighting of Hanukkah Candles
In memory of a miracle, our sages decided: throughout all eight days of Hanukkah, light candles in the evenings.
What Should the Hanukkah Candles be Like?
Even though all kinds of kosher oils and wax are suitable for Hanukkah candles, the preferred way to fulfill this commandment is to take olive oil, as it was in the Temple, where a miracle happened with olive oil. If it is challenging to get olive oil, you should choose another oil that gives a clean flame, or wax candles, the fire of which is also pure. Any wicks are suitable for lighting Hanukkah candles. It is allowed to use the “old” wicks that were already burning, and there is no need to change the wicks every time.
How Many Candles are Lit, and in What Order?
On the first night, you should light the rightmost candle. On the second day to the left of it, add a candle and start lighting candles from it. So every other night you should add a new candle on the left, and ignite them in order from left to right. Since it is forbidden to use the light of Hanukkah candles for your own needs, as usual, an additional candle is lit – “shamash” (Heb.: “servant”) – along with Hanukkah candles. First, we light the “shamash,” and then we use the fire of “shamash” to light the Hanukkah candles. Before lighting the Hanukkah candles, Jews say three special blessings:
- Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights;
- “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.”;
- [To be said only on the first night of Hanukkah]: Blessed are you Lord our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, who provided us with life, sustains us and enabled us to reach this season.
According to some Jewish sages, the Hanukkah lights must be kindled immediately after the dusk, while others say it is necessary to ignite them after one sees at least three stars on the sky.
Despite that it is not necessary to have a festive meal in Hanukkah, most Jews nevertheless try to sit at the table these days in a festive atmosphere, talk about the Torah, and the wonders of Hanukkah. In the Sephardic communities of Jerusalem, during the days of Hanukkah, there are crowded feasts, one of the tasks of which is to reconcile people who quarreled among themselves.
Hanukkah pays special attention to the education of the children of the Torah. In many communities, various events are organized, the task of which is to awaken in children craving for an in-depth study of the Torah. There is a custom to distribute “Hanukkah money” to children during these events to attract their attention and interest.
In the Diaspora, many rabbis left their cities during the days of Hanukkah and went to the villages and towns where Jews lived to teach them the Torah. Thus, Jews living in distant communities could at least once a year meet with prominent Torah scholars and learn from them.
In the days of Hanukkah, children play a Savivon (Yiddish: “Dreidel”) – a tetrahedral top, on the sides of which the Hebrew letters Nun, Gimel, Gay and Pei (in the Diaspora – shin) are inscribed. These are the first letters of the words of the phrase, “A great miracle happened here (in the diaspora – there, in the Land of Israel).” Savivon game was invented so that even the smallest children think about the miracle of Hanukkah.
The main custom of Hanukkah is “Khinukh” – Upbringing (the word in Hebrew with the same root as “Hanukkah”) is the upbringing of both children and the whole nation. Its task is to ensure that the Jews do not forget about the mercy shown to them by the Almighty, glorify Him and obey His commandments.
It is also customary to bake and eat sweet Hanukkah donuts, “Sufganiyot” in Hebrew. In general, Hanukkah is a Festival of Joy, Life, Freedom, and Light.