Community Connections, Holidays, Jewish Life

Let’s Celebrate Hanukkah

The History

What is Hanukkah? 
Hanukkah is the Jewish eight-day, wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers, and fried foods.  Hanukkah 2022 starts at sundown on Sunday, December 18, and ends at sundown on Monday, December 26.

Why do we celebrate?
In the second century BCE, Israel was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who tried to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of their own Jewish values and traditions. Against all odds, a small band of faithful but poorly armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and rededicated it to the service of G‑d (Hanukkah means “dedication”). When the Maccabees went to light the Temple’s menorah (the seven-branched candelabra), they found only a tiny bit of olive oil had escaped contamination by the Greeks. They lit the menorah anyway — and, miraculously, the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days! To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the festival of Hanukkah  was created.

Wait…does it start with a C or an H? How many Ks are there?
If you’re feeling confused, you’re not alone! In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary lists 24 different spellings. At the J, you’ll see this spelling: Hanukkah. The many options are the result of transliterating the word from Hebrew to English. Read more about the linguistics of Hanukkah here >>

How to Celebrate

Light the Menorah
At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah lighting. The menorah holds nine candles: the middle one is called the shamash (“attendant”), which is used to light the other eight candles. On the first night, we light just one candle. On the second night, an additional candle is lit. By the eighth night of Hanukkah, all eight candles are lit. A menorah is lit in every household (or even by each individual within the household) and placed in a doorway or window so that anyone who walks by the home can see the beautiful menorah!

Play Dreidel
On Hanukkah, it is customary to play with a “dreidel,” a four-sided spinning top bearing the Hebrew letters, nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for nes gadol hayah sham, which means “a great miracle happened there.” The game is usually played for a pot of coins, chocolate gelt, nuts, or other small items, which are won or lost based on which letter the dreidel lands when it is spun. Learn to play dreidel >>

Eat Fried Foods
It is tradition to honor the oil that kept the menorah lit for eight days by eating foods fried with oil such as latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (small round jelly-filled donuts).

Hanukkah Gelt & Tzedakah
In today’s consumer-driven society, people tend to place great importance on giving Hanukkah gifts. However, the tradition is actually to give Hanukkah gelt, gifts of money, to children. In addition to rewarding positive behavior and devotion to Torah study, the cash gifts give the children the opportunity to give tzedakah (charity) to a cause of their choice. This has also spawned the phenomenon of foil-covered “chocolate gelt” or coins during Hanukkah.

Hanukkah Resources + Events

We have a full lineup of crafty, delicious, and restorative Hanukkah events this year – both in-person and virtual. We hope you’ll celebrate with us!

From PJ Library: