Understanding the traditions behind Hanukkah
by Faith Schuster
Dec 13, 2012 | 1166 views | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Faith Schuster
Words of  Faith
Faith Schuster Words of Faith
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I remember that when I was a young girl, many decades ago, people would ask “What did Santa bring you, little girl?”

Instead of answering “I’m Jewish and we don’t ‘do’ Santa Claus,” I would take the easy way out and make something up or perhaps mention a gift I received (or was hoping to receive) for Hanukkah, although there was little gift-giving except for a few coins each night when we lit candles .

When I was a young mother, many decades ago, I took my children to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap and we drove around at night to see all the bright lights and the sparkling Christmas trees in the neighboring streets and towns, but we made a fuss over Hanukkah. We decorated the house (blue and silver, not red and green, no outdoor lights and no tree) and celebrated the holiday for eight nights with candle-lighting and songs and, of course, gifts. But, despite synchronicity in timing and bright lights and gift-giving, Hanukkah is NOT “the Jewish Christmas.”

The two holidays have some similar traditions and practices.

Both holidays bring light to the darkest time of the year; both celebrate with prayer, candles, music, gifts, family get-togethers, and special foods, but Hanukkah, unlike Christmas, is a relatively minor holiday. It has gained increased importance over the years, possibly because many Jewish families have wanted an alternative to the Christmas festivities that fill the air around them and a way to keep their children from feeling left out of the holiday gift-giving, but it is not a holiday of major religious significance, as Christmas is.

So, what does Hanukkah actually celebrate? Here’s the short answer to that question. Hanukkah means “to dedicate.” The eight-day holiday commemorates the re-dedication of the holy temple in Jerusalem after the successful Maccabean Revolt against the tyrant Antiochus of Syria in 168 BCE. Antiochus ordered all the people under his rule to “Hellenize,” insisting that everyone worship Greek gods or be killed. He outlawed Judaism and destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When a band of Syrians set up an altar and commanded a Jew to sacrifice a pig, an old Jewish priest, Mattathias, was enraged. He and his five sons killed the Syrian troops, beginning a guerilla war that eventually defeated the armies of Antiochus and liberated Jerusalem.

When Jews reclaimed the Temple, it was cleansed, a new altar built, and new holy vessels made.

Pure olive oil was needed to light the eternal flame over the Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls. Tradition has it that a vessel of pure oil was found, enough to last for one night, but the oil miraculously lasted for the eight nights it took for more oil to be prepared. An eight-day holiday, a Festival of Lights, was declared, to be observed every year beginning on the 25th of Kislev, the Hebrew month that usually coincides with December.

This year Hanukkah is celebrated from sunset on December 8 to sunset on December 16.

How is the holiday celebrated? A special eight-branched menorah (candelabra) is the central symbol. One candle is lighted on the eve of the holiday, and a candle is added each night thereafter, for eight nights. The menorah is usually displayed in a doorway or window, so that people passing by can witness the symbol of the miracle of the oil. Families may light one menorah together or each member of the family may light his or her own menorah.

The candles should burn for at least a half-hour, during which time prayers are recited, songs are sung, gifts may be exchanged, stories are told, and no work is to be done.

Traditional holiday foods are prepared in oil -- latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (doughnuts), to remind us of the miracle of the oil in the Hanukkah story. Although Hanukkah is a home-based celebration, there are usually services in the synagogue and congregations often have holiday parties, during which there is lots of singing and eating and children playing dreidel. A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side that forms an acrostic for the phrase “A great miracle happened there.” To play, each person puts something in the pot in the middle (often a penny or a piece of candy) and spins the dreidel, taking or giving to the pot according to which letter comes up.

Hanukkah, with its several layers of meaning, has become important not so much as a commemoration of a military victory but as a powerful affirmation of Jewish identity, human dignity, and religious freedom.

One of the songs we sing at Hanukkah says “Not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone shall we all live in peace.” Jewish people celebrate their unique history and tradition with a Festival of Lights that shares prayers with their neighbors for peace on earth to people of good will.
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