Hanukkah:History, Bible, Miracle of the Oil, Menorah, Food

What is the History of Hanukkah?

Alexander the Great, the Greek king who ruled over Syria, Egypt, and Palestine in the fourth century of the common era, was a friend to the Jews. But when he died in 320 B.C.E., his kingdom was divided among several generals. One of them, Seleucus, took control over Palestine and Syria. He and subsequent rulers imposed the Greek way of life upon the Jews, including its many heathen practices.

In 165 B.C.E., led by the Hasmonean family of Mattathias the Priest and his eldest son Judah (called “the Maccabee”), the Jews succeeded in evicting the Syrian- Greeks from Palestine. Religious freedom was restored, and the Jerusalem Temple, which the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV had converted into a pagan shrine, was cleansed, restored, and rededicated.

Can you find the story of Hanukkah in the Bible?

The story of Hanukkah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. It is, however, recounted in the Book of the Maccabees, one of the fourteen books of the Apocrypha.

What was the miracle of the oil?

According to the Talmud, after the Temple had been cleansed and the priests were ready to rekindle the seven-branched Temple menorah (candelabrum), they found only one jug of undesecrated oil, barely enough to keep the menorah burning for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.

This account is not found in the Book of the Maccabees, but it is the generally accepted reason for the observance of Hanukkah for eight days and the lighting of the eight-branched Hanukkah menorah. Biblical scholars now generally believe that the eight-day Hanukkah celebration is actually a “make-up” for the eight-day festival of Sukkot, which was not celebrated due to the war and oppression of the Jewish people during the fighting of the Maccabees with their enemy.

How long must the Hanukkah lights burn?

The legal requirement is that the candles burn “until the time that people cease to walk about in the street” (Talmud, Shabbat 21b). Before the advent of street lighting, people did not usually walk about at night long after nightfall. In fact, it was dangerous to do so.

Since the practice of the people was to be in their homes within one half- hour after nightfall, and the primary Jewish obligation was to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah, the practice of displaying the Hanukkah lights was designed for pedestrian traffic. Therefore, the rabbis who made the laws decided that the Hanukkah lights should last a half-hour after three stars appear in the sky.

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What family members are obligated to light the Hanukkah menorah?

Jewish law specifies three options. At the very least, each household is to light a single candle on each of the eight nights. In the home of the more traditional Jews, each member of the family lights one candle eveiy night.

In the most zealous of households, each person lights one candle on the first night and adds one additional candle each subsequent night. Our practice is that of the most zealous, that is, we add a light each night of the holiday until we reach the required eight. Many families acquire a Hanukkah menorah (called a hanukkiah) for each person to light, although others light only one Hanukkah menorah according to this practice.

Is electric Hanukkah menorahs permissible?

According to nearly all rabbinic authorities, an electrified menorah may not be used to fulfill the obligation of kindling the Hanukkah lights. While electric bulbs undoubtedly give off light, the filaments are not considered a flame.

Moreover, the requisite amount of fuel must be available when the lights are kindled. Because hospitals and stores have restrictions regarding lighting fire, the electric menorah is the only way to symbolically celebrate the holiday. That is why it is used in these places, but in the home a candle or oil Hanukkah menorah is the only way to fulfill the commandment. 

Can people work while the Hanukkah lights are burning?

No, the attention of people should be focused on the lights during the half-hour that the candles burn. And thus the custom is to refrain from working while the candles are aglow.

What is the origin of the game that Jews play on Hanukkah using a spinning top?

The spinning top is called a dreidel, or in Hebrew sevivon. Scholars conjecture that games of luck became attached to Hanukkah to reflect the “luck” of the victorious Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks.

The dreidel spinning top has four Hebrew letters on it. The letters are the initial letters of Hebrew words that spell out the phrase “a great miracle happened there.” This refers to the miracle of the victorious Maccabees that happened in the year 165 B.C.E. Players take turns spinning the dreidel and putting an equal share of something—nuts, raisins, coins—into the “pot.” Players receive various amounts according to the Hebrew letter upon which the dreidel lands.

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Is gift giving on Hanukkah related at all to gift giving at Christmas time?

Gift giving was originally part of the Purim holiday tradition, but not of the Hanukkah tradition. Some families from East European Jewish communities, on the fifth night of Hanukkah, gathered for a special family night during which the children were given Hanukkah money, called “gelt.”

Gift giving on Hanukkah today is in no way imitative of Christmas. Both customs undoubtedly originated independently of the other. Each had a similar desire—to add joyousness to the somber days of winter. It may well be true that Jews have increased the significance and character of gift giving in response to living in a secular and commercial culture that puts such a large emphasis on this tradition during the Christmas season.

What are the traditional foods served during the Hanukkah holiday?

In America, potato latkes are customarily eaten on Hanukkah because they are fried in oil, and oil symbolizes the miracle of the cruse of oil that lasted for eight days instead of one. In Israel, jelly donuts are the popular food during the holiday, because they too are fried in oil.

Eating cheese is another tradition in many Jewish households during the holiday. In the Book of Judith, part of the Apocrypha, Judith feeds the Syrian-Greek army leader Holofernes salty cheese to encourage him to drink wine. After he was lulled to sleep, Judith slew him. In honor of Judith’s bravery, many communities feature cheese dishes on Hanukkah.

What is difference between Hanukkah and Christmas?

What both Hanukkah and Christmas have in common is the joy that each brings to the family and the desire to help the less fortunate that each holiday seems to generate. Although both holidays use light to the fullest, and share gifts, there are major differences. Hanukkah means “dedication,” referring to the eight-day rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled by the Syrian Greeks.

When the rabbis sensed that the military victory of the Maccabees might become the event most emphasized, they introduced the notion of the miraculous jug of oil that burned for eight days.

Unlike Hanukkah, which celebrates the Temple’s rededication, Christians around the world celebrate Christmas as the birthday of Jesus. The word “Christmas”

is actually a contraction of the phrase “Christ mass,” which is a worship service to honor Jesus, known as the Christ child.

Although Christmas is celebrated each year on December 25, the exact day of Jesus’s birth is unknown. Bible scholars have conjectured that he was likely born during the spring of the year.

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December 25 was supposedly chosen not by Christians but by Romans, the traditional antagonists of the early Church. Each year, as the days became noticeably shorter in November and December, Roman citizens feared that the earth might be “dying.” With the return of the sun at the end of December, resulting in longer days, the Romans celebrated the Feast of the Sol Invictus, or Unconquerable Sun, on December 25.

In the fourth century, a Roman bishop ordered that all Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on that day. Many scholars believe that the bishop chose this date so that Christians, still members of an outlaw religion in the eyes of the Romans, could celebrate the birth of their Savior without revealing their religious convictions because their Roman neighbors were celebrating at the same time.

Why does the Hanukkah menorah have nine wicks?

This is a continuation of the practice followed when the seven-branched candelabrum of the Tabernacle and the Temple was lit. The seventh branch in each of these two candelabrums was called the shammash , meaning “servant.” Used to light the others, it was not counted as one of the lights.

A ninth candle is also used on the Hanukkah menorah because the eight primaiy candles may not be used for practical purposes. By having a ninth candle to light the others, one will not be tempted to use any of the eight primary candles for such purposes.

Why is it permissible for traditional Jews to perform work on Hanukkah and not on other holidays?

Hanukkah is a postbiblical holiday. With the exception of Purim, only holidays mentioned specifically in the Bible became full holidays with restrictions on secular activities.

Special synagogue services similar to those held on the three Pilgrimage holidays (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot) are not held to celebrate Hanukkah, although the liturgy has been supplemented with several extra prayers. There is also a reading of the Torah scroll on each of the eight days of Hanukkah.

Traditional Hanukkah song that Jews sing during the Hanukkah festival

Yes, there is. It’s called Ma’oz Tzur, written by an unknown author between the eleventh and thirteenth century. This song, called in English “Rock of Ages,” extols God as Israel’s deliverer, which is the precise theme of the holiday.