On the 25th day of Kislev, Jews around the world will light a candle to rededicate their faith in God and in themselves, symbolically relighting their souls as well.
The observance lasts eight days and is known as Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights. It commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BC. The holiday follows the lunar calendar and begins on Dec. 1 this year.
At sundown each day of the holiday, Jews light a candle in increasing order on the hanukkiah, a nine-branch menorah, using a shamash, or service candle, while saying a blessing. The hanukkiah can be constructed of any material, even potatoes, so long as it has nine branches — one for each day of the holiday and one for the service candle.
The eight days represent a miracle of God on behalf of the Maccabeans, who sought to rededicate the temple after expelling the pagan Greeks. According to tradition, the Maccabeans found they had only enough sacred olive oil to light the eternal flame in the menorah for one day. The oil lasted eight days, however, long enough for them to process more oil for the lamp.
“Hanukkah celebrates a victory over oppression, as the Greeks had sought to prevent the Jews from worshipping God. Jews light the candle to show how proud they are to be Jewish and of their identity,” said Rabbi Matthew Cutler of the Congregation Gates of Heaven, a reformed synagogue in Schenectady.
The holiday also affirms that “God did not just create the world, but that God continues to watch over the world,” said Rabbi Moshe Mirsky of Congregation Beth Israel of Schenectady, an orthodox synagogue.
Mirsky said the Hanukkah light represents the words of the Torah, the Jewish soul. “On a deeper level, the idea of lighting the candles is a rejuvenation of the soul,” he said.
Cutler said to some Jews Hanukkah was a minor holiday that became more significant in recent times as a counter to Christmas. He said Jews used it to reclaim their identity. According to the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Hanukkah became an important holiday among American Jews by the 1920s.
Cutler’s synagogue will celebrate Hanukkah each night with a ceremony and prayer, followed by a dinner featuring traditional foods fried in oil, such as latkes, or potato cakes, and fried doughnuts.
Devout Jews have always considered Hanukkah important, Mirsky said. “It happens that among the general Jewish population, it has gotten more popular because of its nearness to Christmas,” he said.
His congregation will say special prayers in the morning service just for Hanukkah and they will read the Torah every day of Hanukkah. “We read about the ordination of the altar in the tabernacle, the predecessor to the temple,” Mirsky said.
During Hanukkah, Jews customarily give money, or gelt. “You can give presents every day, but it is not obligatory, and you do not have to give them widespread, such as to neighbors and coworkers,” Mirsky said. He said giving presents to children is permissible, “if the presents make the holiday more special to them and make them connect to it.”
Cutler said gifts, if given, are generally trinkets. “Hanukkah is not a period for gift giving,” he said. “It is a time for family and friends to come over,” he said.
Another custom is to play with the dreidel, a spinning top. The dreidel contains letters that stand for the words, “A Great Miracle Happened There.” In Israel, it says, “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”
Hanukkah is considered a rabbinical tradition, not a Biblical tradition. “Biblical means it is in the Bible, in the five books of Moses. Rabbinical means it took place after the Bible was already written,” Mirsky said. As such, it is Talmudic tradition influenced by rabbis, Cutler said. It also means Jews are permitted to go about life as usual during the holiday.