History of Hanukkah

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People of Jewish fate celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, around the world to commemorate the victory of the Jews over the Hellenist Syrians in 165 BCE. Following their victory, the Maccabees, who led the Jews in their revolt, entered the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to reclaim it from the Syrians and to rededicate it to the service of God. Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for dedication or consecration. To light the temple, they needed oil blessed by a priest, which would take a trip of eight days to acquire. They only had enough consecrated oil to light the temple for one evening but miraculously, this oil burned for eight nights until someone could return with the blessed oil. This is the miracle of Hanukkah.

To commemorate this miracle, candles are placed in a hanukkiah, which is a type of menorah or candelabrum with holes for nine candles. Eight of these candles represent the eight days of Hanukkah and the ninth is the Shamash, which is the candle used to light the other candles. The Shamash is lit first and then used to light the other candles. Each night of Hanukkah sees a new set of candles. They are placed in the holders starting on the right and then lit starting on the left. The first night only one candle is lit, the second night two are lit, and so on until the eighth night, which can look like quite a blaze! Prayers are recited and the lights are enjoyed for their beauty and never used for any purpose except as a reminder of God’s blessings.

Hanukkah is a joyful family celebration during which gifts are exchanged, children play games, and traditional foods, such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (Israeli jelly doughnuts) are served. The foods of Hanukkah are often fried in oil, which is associated with the oil in the Temple lamps.

Confections at HanukkahDreidel with chocolate gelt

One of the traditions most associated with confections at Hanukkah involves a game played with a spinning top, called a dreidel. The dreidel has four sides and each side contains a Hebrew letter that represents the first word in a Hebrew phrase meaning, “a great miracle happened there.” In Israel, where the great miracle actually happened, the last letter is different, standing for, “here,” instead of, “there.”

Today, the game is usually played with chocolates or other candies, often with foiled-wrapped chocolate coins known as gelt. To begin, every player puts one piece of chocolate into the pot, then everyone takes turns spinning the dreidel. Each one of the sides of the dreidel indicates what the player does on his or her turn.  Nun – the player takes no chocolate from the chocolate. Gimmel – the player takes everything from the pot. Hay – the player takes half the pot. Shin – the player puts one chocolate into the pot. When a player has no more gelt, he or she is out, or may ask for a loan. The game is over when one player has every piece of gelt. We hope the winners always choose to share, though.