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Festival facts: Hanukkah

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By Louise Tellamteacher and freelance writer

Find out how and why Jewish people celebrate this special festival

Hanukkah candles

What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival that takes place in December that was established by Judas Maccabaeus in 164BC to ensure that Jews would remember the triumph of the rebel Maccabees and the miracle of the enduring light that followed when they rededicated the desecrated temple in Jerusalem. The focus of the eight-day celebration is the lighting of eight candles on a traditional branched candlestick, a hanukkiah.

Why is Hanukkah celebrated?

For Jewish people, the event that initiated Hanukkah encapsulates one of the recurring themes of their history, their struggle for liberation in the face of oppression. Time and again they faced persecution, even annihilation, but have survived as a nation.

In 167BC, furious at their rebellion, King Antiochus IV of Syria marched through Judea savaging the Jewish people. He had forbidden them to practice their religion and live according to Jewish customs. Disobedience was punishable by death. He desecrated the temple in Jerusalem, insisting that it was dedicated to the Greek God Zeus. For three years, a small group of Jews led by Judas the Maccabee fought back. Although they were outnumbered, they triumphed against all odds and eventually reclaimed the Temple. They marched through Jerusalem and entered the temple on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. The Temple was cleared of statues and the Jewish priests began the Festival of Rededication declared by Judas. By the altar in the temple was a great oil lamp known as the Eternal Lamp symbolising God’s presence. This was lit using the last remaining jar of oil, which only contained enough to last one day. Miraculously the lamp continued to burn for the full eight days of the festival, until new supplies arrived. Thus light is used as a symbol of spiritual liberty, which is at the heart of this festival and of Jewish life.

How is Hanukkah celebrated?

The word Hanukkah or Chanukah, which has twelve different spellings, means ‘dedication’. The lighting of the Hanukkah candles recalls the rededication of the temple. It is an act of dedication itself for individuals, families and whole communities who display the lights as a public proclamation of their values, and their freedom to express their faith and Jewish identity.

In homes or public places, candles or lights are lit with the addition of one light each night, building up to eight. In most candlesticks or menorahs or hanukkiahs, as they are known, there is a ninth holder for the shammash or servant candle. This is used to light the other candles. Then blessings are said, remembering the Hanukkah event and the candles are left to burn for at least an hour. The light created is strictly for the purpose of celebration and not to illuminate work of any kind. This time is spent in reflection, teaching children about the festival and their faith and telling stories of other Hanukkah ‘miracles’. Parties are held with traditional singing and dancing, the exchanging of gifts, including money (gelt) for the children, and the sharing of special foods, such as latkes, doughnuts and rich fruit puddings. Children often play with dreidels, spinning tops marked with four Hebrew letters. These letters represent the words Nes, Gadol, Hayah and Sham, meaning ‘a great miracle happened there (here)’, recalling the roots of the festivities.

This is an important time for reaffirming ideals and a sense of unity, and most Jews attend prayers at the synagogue. Special prayers of thanksgiving are said, expressing gratitude for liberation and the miracle at the Temple. Psalms of praise and the reading of the Book of Zechariah 4 (Christian Old Testament) encourage reflection upon the challenges to their lifestyle and faith that Jews have faced throughout history and the ways in which God has delivered them.

Top facts

Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.

It celebrates the preservation of the Jews’ identity.

Key words

  • Hanukkah
  • God
  • Jew
  • Temple
  • Dedication
  • Festival
  • Candle
  • Menorah/Hanukkiah
  • Freedom

Jews attend prayers at the synagogue

Main features of Hanukkah

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is a celebration of the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Jerusalem temple. It also commerorates the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days.

The role of light

Wherever they may be, in freedom or captivity, throughout the ages, each flame that is lit at Hanukkah recalls for Jews the struggle for liberation from oppression, fought for by so many Jews at the time of the Maccabees and ever since. The lights proclaim the importance of religious identity and expression.

Star of David

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