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The Jewish religion has two major eight-day holidays, Passover in the spring and Hanukkah in the winter. Even though the latter holiday is among the Jewish holidays with which Americans are most familiar, many non-celebrators have questions about its meaning. Learn all about what Hanukkah is below.
What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah, also known by its Hebrew name Chanukah, is the Jewish festival of lights (whereas Diwali is the Indian festival of lights). It is the holiday with which the menorah, the most common wintertime Jewish symbol, is associated.
Who celebrates Hanukkah?
Whereas holidays such as Simchat Torah, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur may sometimes be observed solely by the most observant of Jews, Hanukkah is among the Jewish holidays most widely celebrated by more casual Jews. That’s because its celebration often involves ample presents, making it especially kid- and family-friendly.
How is Hanukkah celebrated?
During Hanukkah, the menorah is lit nightly. The menorah contains eight candles plus a central ninth candle known as the shamash, Hebrew for “attendant.” This candle is lit first and then used to light the other candles from right to left, just as Hebrew is read. On the first night of Hanukkah, one candle plus the shamash is lit; on the second, two are lit, and so forth through the eighth night. Blessings are recited during menorah lighting, and the lit menorah is placed in a doorway or window.
Additionally, many modern families will give their children one gift per night of Hanukkah. This tradition is rooted in the giving of gelt (gifts of money) during Hanukkah. Chocolate gelt in the shape of coins is common during the holiday, as are latkes (potato pancakes) served with applesauce or sour cream. Games of dreidel are also a Hanukkah staple.
What does Hanukkah celebrate?
Hanukkah, like many holidays, celebrates a miracle. Thousands of years ago, Syrian-Greeks attempted to convert Jews en masse to Greek religions and beliefs. A figure by the name of Judah the Macabee led an unlikely rebellion that drove the Syrian-Greeks from the Jewish holy land, allowing the Jewish people to reclaim the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as their own and devote it to God.
The menorah represents a smaller miracle within this large miracle. When Judah and his army arrived at the Holy Temple, they attempted to light the temple’s seven-branched candelabrum, a predecessor to the modern menorah. However, at the temple, only a smaller portion of lighting oil expected to last just one day remained after the Syrian-Greeks contaminated the oil supply. This oil unexpectedly lasted eight days, recasting the menorah as an eight-candle object and birthing the modern Hanukkah celebration.
When is Hanukkah?
As with the vast majority of Jewish holidays, Hanukkah’s dates on the Gregorian calendar change each year. On the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah always begins at nightfall on Kislev 25 and lasts eight days. The dates of the Hebrew calendar map to different days on the Gregorian calendar every year, and for 2019, these dates translate to December 22 through 30.
If you celebrate Hanukkah, how do you plan to spend the holiday? Share your routine in the comments!