Hanukkah 2015: What is the Jewish Festival of Lights and when does it begin?

Doughnuts, dreidels and a nine-branched candle holder. Here’s all you need to know about Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights

happy hanukkah Capture

Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish festival also known as the Festival of Lights. Jews observe the festival by lighting one candle on a nine-branched menorah – or ‘hanukiah candelabrum’ – each day.

In the western calendar, Hanukkah is celebrated in November or December.

The holiday begins on the 25th day of Kislev – the ninth month of the ecclesiastical year on the Hebrew calendar – and is celebrated for eight days.

This year, Hanukkah will begin on the evening of Sunday December 6th and end on the evening of Monday December 14th.

The Hanukkah menorah in Victoria Gardens, Brighton (Photo ©Dominic Alves on Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

What is the history behind Hanukkah?

The word Hanukkah means ‘rededication’ and commemorates the Jews’ struggle for religious freedom when, according to legend, the leaders of a Jewish rebel army called the Maccabees rose up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt of 167 BC (BCE).

Bust of Antiochus IV at the Altes Museum in Berlin

Bust of Antiochus IV at the Berlin Altes Museum

King Antiochus had taken over the Second Temple in Jerusalem and soon after ordered an altar to Zeus to be erected. Judaism was prohibited, circumcision was banned and pigs were ordered to be sacrificed at the altar.

The Jewish rebellion that followed was led by Judah Maccabee, (or Y’hudhah HaMakabi, meaning “Judah the Hammer”).

The uprising spanned three years until the Maccabees gained control of Jerusalem.

They wanted to rededicate the desecrated temple, but could find only one container of the sacred oil they needed which had the seal of the high priest still intact.

Judaism’s central text the Talmud, dictates only pure olive oil with the seal of the high priest can be used for the Hanukiah.

The candelabrum is required to burn throughout the night every night but although there was only enough oil for one day, the candles miraculously stayed alight for eight days – the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil for the menorah.

This event became known as ‘the miracle of the oil’ and is now marked with an eight-day festival.

Celebrating Hanukkah with a dreidel

Games are often played during the festival, including spinning the dreidel which is the Yiddish word for a spinning top.

A dreidel

A dreidel is a pointed, four-sided top which can be made to spin on its pointed base. Dreidels are normally made of plastic or wood and there is a Hebrew letter embossed or printed on each of the dreidel’s four sides.

These four letters form the acronym of the phrase: “Nes gadol hayah sham,” “A great miracle happened there”; a reference to the Hanukkah miracle of the oil.

The dreidel dates back to the time of the Greek-Syrian rule over the Holy Land – the one which set off the Maccabean revolt (see above). Learning Torah was outlawed by the enemy, a ‘crime’ punishable by death and Jewish children were forced to study in secret.

If the Greeks came calling, the pupils would pull out their tops and pretend to be playing a game.

And what about traditional Hanukkah food?

For Hanukkah, Jews customarily eat fried foods to commemorate the miracle associated with the Temple oil.

Sufganiyot are round deep-fried jam- or custard-filled doughnuts which are topped with powdered sugar.

Sufgies

Delicious jam-filled doughnuts called ‘sufgies’ are a Hanukkah staple

These are said to derive from from a yeast dough pastry mentioned in the Talmud. These pastries were cooked in oil and called sufganin (absorbent) because they absorbed a lot of oil in cooking.

In more Northern communities, where olive oil was scarce and expensive, goose or chicken fat was often used for frying so potato pancakes (latkes), apple fritters, and other non-dairy fried foods became the norm.

Why are dairy products popular during Hanukkah?

Gustav Klimt's explicit 1901 version of Judith and the Head of Holofernes

Gustav Klimt’s explicit 1901 version of Judith and the Head of Holofernes

During the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, the town of Bethulia in Judea was under siege and its population on the verge of surrender due to lack of water.

A young woman called Judith requested a meeting with Nebuchadnezzar’s top General, the Assyrian Holofernes, who was directing the siege outside the town walls.

She entered the Holefernes camp and seduced him, fed him salty cheeses so that he would become thirsty and served him wine so he would fall asleep.

She then killed him and returned to the town with his severed head.

The Assyrians, having lost their leader, fled and Israel was saved. Judith remained unmarried for the rest of her life and in memory of her bravery and purity Jews make sure to eat dairy products during Hanukkah.

Nowadays, even though olive oil is affordable, dairy is often added on top of a latke – usually in the form of a dollop of sour cream.

ded herself as his advisor in his campaign to defeat the Jews. Seduced by her intelligence, blinded by her beauty, Holofornes agreed to her plan. She invited him to a luxurious dinner where she served him great quantities of cheese – to promote thirst, and wine – to quench it. Finally he fell into a deep and uncomprehending sleep.Without wasting a moment, Yehudis grabbed his sword, cut off his head, and returned with it to the anxious, waiting Jews. The severed head was displayed on the walls of the city, terrifying the Assyrian army who panicked and retreated. The Jewish soldiers were victorious and a prayer of thanksgiving was offered up, with gratitude to the Almighty and his righteous agent, Yehudis.

‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ by Caravaggio

Is it Chanukah or Hanukkah?

In Hebrew, Hanukkah is pronounced with the letter ‘chet’. The letter “H” makes the closest sound. So both names work.

Adam Sandler: The Chanukah Song

Jewish comedian Adam Sandler originally wrote and performed ‘The Chanukah Song’ on Saturday Night Live in 1994.

He debuted the fourth and most recent version of the song at the ‘Judd Apatow & Friends’ event at the New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall in November.

All variations of the ditty deal with the issue of Jewish children feeling alienated during the Christmas season. Sandler lists Jewish celebrities (both real and fictional) as a way of sympathising with the kids’ situation.

And it goes a little like this:

Put on your yarmulke, here comes Hanukkah
So much fun-ukah to celebrate Hanukkah
Chanukkah is the Festival of Lights,
Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights.

When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree,
Here’s the fourth list of people who are Jewish, just like Jesus, Olaf, Punky Brewster, Scott Rudin, and me!

Joseph Gordon-Levitt enjoys eating kugel
So does Stan Lee, Jake Gyllenhaal, and the two guys who founded Google
Adam Levine wears a Jewish star
So does Drake and Seth Rogen
Goldberg has a gold yarmulke to match the belt he won from Hulk Hogan

We got Scarlett Johansson, talk about a Kosher crush
And if you need a higher voice to turn you on, how about Geddy Lee from Rush?
We may not have a cartoon with a reindeer that can talk
But we also don’t have polio, thanks to Dr. Jonas Salk (smart Jew!)

Put on your yarmulke, it’s time for Hanukkah
Harry Potter and his magic wand-ukah, celebrate Hanukkah
Jared from Subway: God dammit, a Jew
But guess who’s Jewish and can fix him? Loveline’s Dr. Drew (get on it doc!)

Carrie Fisher is Jewish...

Carrie Fisher is Jewish…

Princess Leia cuts the challah with Queen Elsa from Frozen
David Beckham is the king of soccer studs and also a quarter chosen
Ron Jeremy is fully Jewish and so is his foot-long buddy
Shia LaBeouf is half a Jew but 100 percent nutty

It’s cool that Santa Claus who makes Christmas so merry
But we get two jolly fat guys: ice cream’s Ben & Jerry (both Jewish!)

From New York to Iran-ukah, get up and celebrate Hanukkah
Don’t mess with us, oh Hanukkah, let’s all get along for Hanukkah
So drink your Jaegerbomb-ukah and smoke your medical-chron-ukah
If you really, really wan-ukah, have a happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy Hanukkah

‘Friends: The One with the Holiday Armadillo’

Many fans of popular culture previously unfamiliar with the festival first became aware of Hanukkah after an episode of the popular sitcom Friends aired in December 2000.

Ross, who is entertaining his young (and half-Jewish) son Ben during the week of Christmas, tries at the last minute to find a Santa costume.

The only outfit available is an armadillo so he creates a new holiday character called ‘The Holiday Armadillo’ – Santa’s south-of-the-border friend who teaches Ben about the importance and history of Hanukkah.

Hilarity ensues…

And finally…’Shalom’

 

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