by Stephanie Gordon: Some people think Hanukkah is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas because they happen around the same time every year, but there’s much more to the holiday than you may think…
To some, Hanukkah is seen as the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, mainly because they occur at the same time of year and involve gifts. But the actual meaning of Hanukkah is drastically different from that of Christmas. Also known as the “Festival of Lights,” Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration that commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple after the Jewish people battled the Syrian-Greeks (Seleucids) to reclaim it in the second century BCE. Hanukkah has both historical and spiritual meaning in the Jewish religion, and is celebrated by lighting the menorah, eating fried foods, and playing dreidel.
“Hanukkah always coincides with the Winter Solstice,” Rabbi Jessica Minnen tells Woman’s Day. “It symbolizes the creation of light in the darkest times, which will be especially true this year. Jewish holidays are all connected to the earth and the cycle of seasons. It is intentional that a holiday about creating light happens during the darkest week of the year.”
Keep reading to find out more about the meaning of Hanukkah and how it’s celebrated.
What is Hanukkah’s historical significance?
According to National Geographic, the Syrian-Greeks invaded the Jewish homeland and captured Jerusalem, where the Jewish Holy Temple was located. After the invasion, they attempted to force the Jewish people to forgo their religion and customs and adopt Greek beliefs instead. The Syrian-Greeks desecrated the Holy Temple and enacted laws forbidding the practice of Judaism.
“Imagine your town being taken over by people telling you that you can’t practice your faith anymore, that are trying to take away your identity. That’s what was happening to the Jewish people,” Minnen explains.
Rather than assimilate, the Jews rebelled against their oppressors. A tiny army of Jews, led by a man called Judah the Maccabee (the Hebrew word for hammer), fought back against the huge Syrian-Greek army, reclaiming both Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.
What is Hanukkah’s spiritual significance?
According to Jewish tradition, after the Jews won back Jerusalem, they found that the Temple had been destroyed. They began to clean it up and wanted to light the menorah (a seven-branched candelabrum used to light the Temple) to give sacred light to the restoration project. However, the oil used in the temple had to be a special, purified oil, and the Jews couldn’t find any. They finally found a tiny bit of oil that would be enough for one day. It lasted for eight days, which was just enough time to purify more oil to keep the Temple lit. Today, Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights because it marks the celebration of that miracle.
Minnen says that the spiritual significance of Hanukkah is that, like the Jews more than two thousand years ago dedicating themselves to restoring the Temple, Jewish people today also take time during the holiday to reflect on who they really are, and rededicate themselves to their faith.
How is Hanukkah celebrated?
Hanukkah is celebrated with the following traditions:
Lighting the Menorah
On the eight nights of Hanukkah, Jews light the menorah, adding an extra candle each night until there are eight candles on the last night. The modern menorah, which is also called a hunukkiah, is a candelabra meant to commemorate the menorah from the Holy Temple, but, as the Wall Street Journal notes, it has nine arms to accommodate the eight candles plus a Shamash candle, which is the candle that is used to light other candles.
Minnen explains that “because of the miracle that happened with the oil, we celebrate by eating foods cooked in oil. The two most common are latkes, which are fried potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, which are fried jelly doughnuts.”
“One of the Greek laws was to prohibit the Jews from studying Torah (the Old Testament). So Jews would have secret gatherings to study together,” Minnen says. “They took these spinning tops with them to study so in the event that a soldier walked by and peeked in the windows where they were, they would quickly shut the books and spin the tops so it would look like they were just playing a game.”
She says the spinning tops, or dreidels, became a symbol of resistance, and Jews kept the custom of playing dreidel on Hanukkah. Dreidels are marked with the letters for the Hebrew words ‘Nes Gadol Hayah Sham’, which means a great miracle happened there (referring to Jerusalem). Playing dreidel is pretty simple. Each of the Hebrew letters has a different value assigned to it. Depending on which letter your dreidel lands on after you spin it, you win or lose different amounts of gelt, which can either mean real coins or chocolate coins wrapped in foil. The goal is to collect as much Gelt as possible.
How can you participate this year?
Minnen acknowledges that this year will pose some unique challenges to celebrating Hanukkah as a community, but there are still ways to get involved. “There’s a teaching in Judaism that tells us we should publicize the miracle of Hanukkah,” she says. “This means lighting candles in front of a window to magnify the light for as many people as possible, and celebrating with big parties.”
While the parties most likely won’t happen this year, Minnen predicts that virtual candle lighting might be the next best option. Minnen suggests that one way to incorporate video chat into the holiday could be to increase the amount of people that you light with each night, just as you would increase the number of candles. For example, on the first night, you would light a candle on your own. On the second night, you’d light with one person on Zoom, followed the next night with two people on Zoom, and so on. “Doing this will allow for connection with the community and performing the mitzvah (good deed) of promoting the holiday, while still staying safe,” she says.
For individuals looking for a resource to give them a broader understanding of the holiday, Minnen recommends the short movie ‘Lights’ on YouTube.