With the holiday season upon us, many are reminded that they have friends and relatives who celebrate Hannukah right around Christmas time. This year, in fact, this eight-day Jewish festival, which follows the lunar rather than the solar calendar, begins on Tuesday evening, December 20. So wouldn’t it be nice to know something about this holiday and either help them celebrate or at least understand what’s going on?
Hannukah, also transliterated as Chanukah, means dedication in Hebrew. It celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the second century before the common era after its recovery from the Hellenistic Syrians. The story is told in the 2,000-year-old First Book of Maccabees, which, while it did not make it into the official Hebrew Bible, ironically is honored as part of the Apocrypha of many Christian denominations. The first century Jewish historian Josephus recorded most of the story in his “Antiquities of the Jews”, and chapter 10, verse 22 of the Gospel of St. John refers to Jesus’ celebration of the “Festival of Dedication” in the Temple one winter approximately 200 years after the first Hannukah.
The Temple rededication followed a successful Jewish revolt led by Judah the Maccabee against the reigning Seleucid King Antiochus, who had terminated Israelite rites and substituted the worship of Jupiter. It was perhaps the first revolution fought for religious freedom. The ritual cleansing of the Temple and the rekindling of its iconic candelabrum has made the lighting of Hannukah candles in Jewish homes the central rite of celebrations today.
The custom of lighting one candle on the first night and adding one each night for a total of eight on the last night commemorates a Hannukah miracle recounted since early in the common era. It was related that the victorious rebels found only enough undefiled oil to light the candelabrum for one night. Nevertheless, the oil lasted for eight nights until a new supply could be prepared.
Contemporary lighting ceremonies are accompanied by singing, gift giving, and delicacies appropriate to the holiday. Chief among the latter are potato pancakes, called latkes, and jelly doughnuts, presumably because of their oily associations. Children of all ages spin a special top called a dreidel to determine the winner of penny antes.