- SWATHI RAMASWAMY
- UPDATED May 09, 2018
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What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah is Jewish “festival of lights” that goes on for eight long days in the wintertime. It is a Hebrew word which means “dedication,”. Now we get to understand that it is so named to honor the dedication of the Jews in the reconstruction of the Holy Temple. The traditional spelling for Hanukkah is actually ‘Chanukkah,’ but it is pronounced with a ‘kh’ sound instead of a ‘h’ or a ‘ch’ sound. Hanukkah is not meant to be such a significant holiday but it falls really close to Christmas and thus has grown to gain significant popularity for celebrations over the years. It tells the story and resolves to keep the tradition of the Maccabeans or the followers of Judd Maccabee who led them to reclaim the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. After they reclaimed the temple, they did not have enough oil to light the lanterns fo the prayers and the rituals except for one small flask that had been untouched by the Greeks. But somehow, miraculously, that flask of oil lasted them for eight whole days, which is the main crux of the Hanukkah festival or the festival of lights.
This is similar to Diwali, the festival of lights in India, where the lighting of lamps signifies the triumph of good over evil. The oil in the flask went on for eight nights and days and that is why Jews light menorahs or eight stemmed candles on Hanukkah. More traditional families refrain from using technologies during this time while others watch Hanukkah special programmes on TV with their family. Food traditions have arisen from that one story about the miracle of the lasting of oil which led to evolving of lots of fried food recipes and treats cooked in olive oil.
What does it commemorate?
Hanukkah tells the story of a small band of Jewish people and their hard work to drive out the Greeks from their land and reclaim the Holy Temple in service to God. The Greek rulers forced the people to accept their teachings and faith, instead of letting them follow their own. This prompted Judd Maccabee to lead a bunch of followers to reclaim the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. After they reclaimed the temple, they did not have enough oil to light the lanterns for the prayers and the rituals except for one small flask that had been untouched by the Greeks. But somehow miraculously, that flask of oil which was supposed to last only for one day lasted them for eight whole days! This is the main reason why Hanukkah was celebrated. The holy and learned people instituted this tradition to mark the miracle of the lasting of oil. To commemorate this miracle, Jews light menorahs or eight stemmed candles on Hanukkah for eight consecutive nights.
How Is Hanukkah Observed?
The Jews celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the menorah or the eight stemmed candle, and this forms the main reason or the main tradition that gives birth to the other traditions and which stems from the story of Hanukkah. The menorah holds in it exactly nine flames. The ninth flame is used to light up the other flames, so it is not a candle but a kindler. On the first night, only one flame is lighted. On the next night, the next flame is lit. Following this, all eight flames are lit one by one on the eight days of Hanukkah. A menorah is lighted in every household and it is usually put in a window or a doorway. Hanukkah is observed by reciting traditional prayers after the lighting of the candles and before the meals, traditional songs are sung.
When Is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah always commences on the Kislev 25 Eve and continues to go on for the rest of the next eight days. On the English calendar, it generally falls in the month of December.
Foods fried in oil are consumed because the Hanukkah miracle involved oil. There are so many delicious foods that are eaten during Hanukkah which are eaten. All of these differ in different countries. There is the potato latke which is a pancake topped with sour cream or applesauce, the sufganya, which is a jelly-filled doughnut, bimuelos and Chocolate gelt, a famous Hanukkah candy.
Dreidel: the Hanukkah Game
On Hanukkah, it is traditional to take part in the playing of a “dreidel” which is a four-sided spinning top and has a nun, Hebrew letters, gimmel, hei and shin on it.
The tradition is to give Hanukkah gelt, gifts of money, to children. The festival is meant to preach charity or ‘tzedakah’ to younger children and teach them the importance of it.
Important lessons from Hanukkah
Hanukkah is unique in that its most important celebrations are in public. It teaches us that even though you are a religious Jew, you have to be a kind one at heart to truly be recognized as a true Jew and shine bright and let the flame of your brightness affect the society for good. Hanukkah teaches us that the victory of the right always shines through and togetherness and abiding by what one believes in is alwaysimportant.
How is it celebrated everywhere?
Hanukkah traditions are different in every country. The core traditions remain the same, but there is always an element that is crucially endemic to the country that it originates in. Let us see how it is celebrated in different countries:
In every country that celebrates Hanukkah, the celebration is more about togetherness than anything else. Countries such as Australia and Canada have been celebrating this festival for a long, long time and have come to develop some inimitable traditions that are unique to them. The Canadians celebrate Hanukkah more as an opportunity to preach secularism without giving it a religious aspect or color. In India, there is a significant number of Jews, who all immigrated from Israel way back in the 16th or 17th century. That is why there are 33 synagogues in India. But the Indian Jews dip wicks in coconut oil instead of lighting the traditional menorah. They also eat a sweet coconut treat called ‘Barfi’ which is made out of coconut and milk cream, topped with some dry fruits.