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Hanukkah (khäˈnəkə, –no͝okä), in Judaism, the Festival of Lights, the Feast of Consecration, or the Feast of the Maccabees; also transliterated Chanukah. According to tradition, it was instituted by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers in 165 B.C. to celebrate the dedication of the new altar in the Temple at Jerusalem. The festival occurs in December near the time of the winter solstice, as does Christmas, and lasts eight days. Hanukkah later came to be linked also with a miraculous cruse of oil that burned for eight days, leading to the practice of lighting special Hanukkah candles, one the first evening, two the second, and so on. The eight-branched candlestand (menorah) used in that ceremony is a frequent symbol for the holiday.
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Feast of Dedication, Feast of Lights

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that is unrelated to Christmas. Because it often falls in the month of December, however, some people have mistakenly assumed that Hanukkah is the "Jewish Christmas." In spite of the difference between the two holidays, many American Jewish families have adapted certain Christmas customs, such as cards and gifts for children, for Hanukkah celebrations.

What Is Hanukkah?

The Hebrew word Hanukkah means "dedication." The holiday is also known as the Feast of Dedication or the Feast of Lights. Hanukkah commemorates an historical event, the Jewish victory in 162 the Syrians in the Maccabean War. At this time Judea was part of the Syrian empire, in which Greek culture predominated. Some Jews began to adopt Greek ways of life and thought. A small group of Jews, led by the Maccabee family, resisted this process of assimilation by taking up arms against the Syrian political authorities. After their victory, they cleansed and rededicated the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, which their opponents had occupied and used to offer sacrifices to pagan gods. One record states that those present at the dedication witnessed a miracle. A small amount of oil, enough to keep the temple lamp lit for one day, lasted a full eight days.

Today's Hanukkah celebrations often downplay the military history behind the festival. Instead, they emphasize the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem, the victory over religious persecution, and the survival of Judaism. The celebrations last for eight days. They feature a special candleholder, known as a menorah, with room for nine candles. The middle candle, the shamash, or "server," is used to light the other eight. On the first evening of Hanukkah one candle is lit and special prayers are said. On the second evening two candles are lit, and so on. The rest of the evening is spent singing songs, playing games, telling Hanukkah stories, and enjoying special holiday foods.

Hanukkah and Christmas

Because the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar rather than the solar year, the date of Hanukkah moves about on our calendar. The first day of Hanukkah falls on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which means that it can fall anywhere between November 25 and December 26. In the United States this proximity to Christmas has affected the way in which Hanukkah is celebrated. Originally a minor holiday, Hanukkah has assumed greater importance in the Jewish calendar in order to counter the pervasive presence of Christmas themes and images in the general culture. The old custom of distributing Hanukkah gelt (coins) to children has been expanded to include gifts as well. Many Jewish parents give their children one present for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. In addition, some people now exchange Hanukkah cards with Jewish friends and family members.

In recent years American presidents have added Hanukkah-related activities to their round of holiday duties. In 1979 Jimmy Carter became the first president to participate in a menorah-lighting ceremony (see also White House, Christmas in the).

Further Reading

Edidin, Ben M. Jewish Holidays and Festivals. 1940. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1993. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997. Strassfeld, Michael. The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Hanukkah (Chanukah, Feast of Dedication, Festival of Lights)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Jewish)
Date of Observation: Between November 25 and December 26; from 25 Kislev to 2 Tevet
Where Celebrated: Europe, Israel, United States, and by Jews all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Dreidel, Latkes, Menorah Hanukkah


Hanukkah is a religious holiday in Judaism, one of the oldest continuously observed religions in the world. Its history extends back beyond the advent of the written word. Its people trace their roots to a common ancestor, Abraham, and then back even farther to the very moment of creation.

According to Jewish belief, the law given to the Jewish people by God contained everything they needed to live a holy life, including the ability to be reinterpreted in new historical situations. Judaism, therefore, is the expression of the Jewish people, attempting to live holy (set apart) lives in accordance with the instructions given by God.

Although obedience to the law is central to Judaism, there is no one central authority. Sources of divine authority are God, the Torah, interpretations of the Torah by respected teachers, and tradition. Religious observances and the study of Jewish law are conducted under the supervision of a teacher called a rabbi.

There are several sects within Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is characterized by an affirmation of the traditional Jewish faith, strict adherence to customs such as keeping the Sabbath, participation in ceremonies and rituals, and the observance of dietary regulations. Conservative Jewish congregations seek to retain many ancient traditions but without the accompanying demand for strict observance. Reform Judaism stresses modern biblical criticism and emphasizes ethical teachings more than ritualistic observance. Hasidism is a mystical sect of Judaism that teaches enthusiastic prayer as a means of communion with God. The Reconstructionist movement began early in the twentieth century in an effort to "reconstruct" Judaism with the community rather than the synagogue as its center.

Hanukkah commemorates the successful rebellion of the Jews against the SyrianGreek King Antiochus, who was determined to impose the Greek religion on all of his subjects. He forbade the Jews to read from their holy books, to pray to their god, or to celebrate their holidays. When Matthias, a Jewish priest of Modin (near Jerusalem) and his five sons heard about the king's decrees, they decided to fight back. They ran to the hills and organized a small army led by one of the sons, Judah (also known as Judas Maccabeus). They fought the Syrians for three years and finally succeeded in forcing the Syrian army out of their land in 162 B . C . E .

After the battle was over, the Jewish victors went into their Temple to get rid of the pagan altar and the statues of Zeus and other Greek gods. They wanted to rededicate the Temple to their own god by relighting the holy candelabrum known as the MENORAH . According to the story, they could only find enough consecrated (pure) oil to burn for one day, and it would take eight days to get more. Miraculously, the menorah burned continuously for eight days on its small supply of oil. The rededication ceremony took place on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Kislev-the anniversary of the Temple's desecration by the Greeks three years earlier. For this reason, the festival is sometimes called the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah means "dedication" in Hebrew) or the Festival of Lights.

What Hanukkah really celebrates is the survival of Judaism. The Maccabees' primary goal was to preserve their own Jewish identity. So the holiday is not so much a commemoration of a military success as a celebration of Jewish independence and of religious freedom in general. Interestingly, it is the only major Jewish festival that is not mentioned in the Bible.



Known as a sevivon in Hebrew, the dreidel is a small, flat-sided top that spins on a central post or stem. Each of the four sides bears a Hebrew letter: Nun, Gimel, Hay, and Shin. Taken together, NGHS stands for the words nes gadol hayeh sham, which means "A great miracle happened there"-a reference to the miraculous burning of the MENORAH for eight days.

There is a theory that the game of dreidel was brought to Europe from India during the Middle Ages and eventually played by German Christians on CHRISTMAS EVE . The German letters H, G, H, and S stand for Nichts (nothing), Ganz (all), Halb (half), and Stell ein (put in). The Jews, according to this story, replaced the German letters with Hebrew ones that sounded similar, and made them into an acrostic of the Hebrew phrase, "A great miracle happened there."

The Hebrew letters found on the dreidel also carry numeric values: Nun=50, Gimel=3, Hay=5, and Shin=300. The players take turns spinning the dreidel and accumulating points. After an agreed-upon number of rounds, the person with the highest score wins. Sometimes small change, candy, or raisins and almonds are put in a pot. If the dreidel falls on Gimel, the player takes the entire pot; if Hay, the player takes half; if Nun, he or she takes nothing; and if it falls on Shin, he or she must put half of his or her pile in the pot. The game can be made more challenging by drawing a circle two feet in diameter and trying to keep the spinning dreidel inside the circle. The player whose spin travels outside the circle loses a turn.

The dreidel was often used in places where Jews were forbidden to practice their religion. They would meet, supposedly to play the dreidel, but in fact they would secretly pray together or study the Torah. Although early dreidels were carved from wood found in the forest, nowadays they can be purchased in many sizes, made from a variety of materials, including redwood, silver, and plastic. In addition to recalling the miracle of the burning menorah, the spin of the dreidel also Hanukkah

symbolizes the spinning of the earth on its axis and the cyclical nature of both the seasons and the fortunes of the Jews.


Latkes are potato pancakes served at Hanukkah in memory of the Maccabee women who cooked latkes for the Jewish soldiers when they were fighting the Syrians. Because they are fried in oil, latkes also symbolize the tiny jug of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days when the MENORAH in the Temple was first rekindled after the Syrians were driven out.


The original menorahs were made out of clay and burned oil. The design of today's menorah, which stands on a base from which nine branches sprout like the fingers of a hand, dates back to the Middle Ages. The Hanukkah menorah is called the hanukkiyyah. It has eight places for separate candles and a ninth place for the shammesh or "servant" candle, which is used to light the others. The shammesh is usually set apart by being higher than the other candles.

The lighting of the Hanukkah candles, which stand for spirit, courage, justice, and hope, is the festival's most important ritual. Using the shammesh, the first candle is lit at sundown on the 24th day of Kislev. On the second night, two candles are lit. On each night thereafter, one more candle is added until, on the eighth night of the festival, all eight (along with the shammesh) are burning together. Because Hebrew is read and written from right to left, the candles are set each night from right to left. But they are lit from left to right. The candles are left burning for at least a half hour and are allowed to extinguish themselves. The lighting ritual is accompanied by a blessing and a brief statement in Hebrew about what is being commemorated. The 30th Psalm, a kind of anthem for the festival, is then recited.

The lights associated with Hanukkah are not even mentioned in the Book of the Maccabees, which has led many scholars to conclude that they had nothing to do with the festival originally, but were adapted from the popular pagan custom of lighting candles, torches, or bonfires at the time of the WINTER SOLSTICE. But for most Jews today, the lighting of the candles in the menorah is symbolic of the rekindling of the Temple candelabrum by Judah and his followers.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Cashman, Greer Fay. Jewish Days and Holidays. New York: SBS Pub., 1979. Cuyler, Margery. Jewish Holidays. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978. Drucker, Malka. Hanukkah: Eight Nights, Eight Lights. New York: Holiday House, 1980. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Gaster, Theodor H. Festivals of the Jewish Year. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Renberg, Dalia Hardof. The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays. New York: Adama Books, 1985. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Trepp, Leo. The Complete Book of Jewish Observance. New York: Summit Books, 1980.


Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America www.ou.org/chagim/chanukah/default.htm
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Hanukkah (Chanukah)

Between November 25 and December 26; from Kislev 25 to Tevet 2
Hanukkah commemorates the successful rebellion of the Jews against the Syrians in the Maccabean War of 162 b.c.e., but the military associations of this festival are played down. What is really being celebrated is the survival of Judaism. After the Jews' victory, they ritually cleansed and rededicated the Temple, then relit the menorah ("perpetual lamp"); hence one of the other names for this celebration, the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah means "dedication" in Hebrew). The story is told that although there was only enough consecrated oil to keep the lamp burning for one day and it would take eight days to get more, the small bottle of oil miraculously lasted for the entire eight days. It is for this reason that Hanukkah is also known as the Feast of Lights .
Jewish families today celebrate this holiday by lighting a special Hanukkah menorah, a candelabrum with holders for eight candles, one for each day of celebration, plus a ninth, the shammash, "server," used to light the others. One candle is lit on the first night, two on the second, three on the third, through to the eighth night when all are lit. A special prayer is recited during the lighting, and while the candles burn it is a time for songs and games, including the four-sided toy called the dreidel. Other customs include the giving of gifts, especially to children, and decorating the home—something like the Christmas celebrations in Christian homes around this same time of year.
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
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Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.


(Feast of Lights or Feast of Dedication) Jewish festival lasting eight days; abundance of food is characteristic. [Judaism: NCE, 1190]
See: Feast
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


, Hanukah, Chanukah
the eight-day Jewish festival of lights beginning on the 25th of Kislev and commemorating the rededication of the temple by Judas Maccabaeus in 165 bc
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005