Hanukkah is one of the most significant periods in the Jewish calendar, celebrated by millions worldwide. Also known as the Festival of Lights, it is observed by lighting one candle on the 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, or Chanukah, will begin on the evening of 6 December and end the evening of 14 December.
What is the history behind the celebration?
The word Hanukkah means 'rededication' and commemorates the Jews' struggle for religious freedom.
The festival marks the victory of the Israelites led by a group of Jewish warriors called the Maccabees over the imperial power of Syria in 167 BCE. When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was looted and serviced halted, Judaism was prohibited. In 167 BCE, King Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus to be erected in the temple. Circumcision was banned and pigs were ordered to be sacrificed at the altar.
Led by the Judah Maccabee, or Y'hudhah HaMakabi, meaning "Judah the Hammer", the Jewish rebellion that followed waged a war spanning three years. The Maccabees gained control of Jerusalem and when they rededicated the desecrated temple, they discovered a single container of oil with the seal of the high priest still intact.
According to the Talmud, pure olive oil with the seal of the high priest was needed for the Hanukiah, the nine-branched temple candelabrum which was required to burn throughout the night every night. Although there was only enough oil for one day, the candles stayed alight for eight days – the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil for the menorah. Known as the miracle of the oil, it is now marked with an eight-day festival.
How is Hanukkah celebrated today?
Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting one candle on the Hanukiah each day. Games are often played during the festival, including spinning the dreidel – a popular game for children in which a four-sided top with Hebrew letters written on each side is spun. Gelt, chocolate coins covered with tin foil, are part of this game.
Food is a big part of the holiday. As Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil, it is traditional to eat fried foods such as latkes – potato pancakes – and sufganiyot – jam-filled doughnuts.