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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hanukkah (or Chanukah) Customs

Hanukkah is an eight day holiday which marks the miraculous victory of the Jews, led by the Maccabees, against Greek persecution and religious oppression. In addition to being victorious in war, a miracle occurred.  When they came to rededicate the Temple, they found only one flask of oil with which to light the Menorah. This small flask lasted for eight days. In order to commemorate this miracle, Jews light a Menorah for the eight days of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is not a Jewish version of Christmas. Although it is celebrated the same time of year, Hanukkah commemorates the physical and spiritual victory of the Jews over the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago.

Hanukkah is also known as the:
o   Festival of Lights, since the flame in the Temple burned miraculously for eight days.
o   Feast of Dedication, since the Temple was rededicated after being desecrated.

Hanukkah is celebrated from 25 Kislev - 2 Tevet, according to the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, so it falls on different dates each year. This year Hanukkah began the evening of December 8, 2012. Remember that all Jewish holidays begin at sundown the evening before. 

One way Hanukkah is celebrated is through food.  Because the oil in the lamps lasted for eight days, during Hanukkah Jewish people eat foods fried in oil.  Most often this is latkes (fried potato pancakes) and deep fried donuts.  Cheese is also eaten in remembrance of how one of the greatest victories against the Maccabees was gained by feeding the enemy cheese.

Children play with the dreidel in remembrance of the brave children who lived during the time of the conquering Greeks.  Every effort was made by the Greeks to force Hellenism upon the Jews at the expense of teaching Jewish Law and the Torah schools were closed.  Hence, Jewish Law had to be taught to the children in secret in the forest.  When the Greek patrols would come by, the children would hide their books and play with tops to cover what they were doing in the woods.  Today, four Hebrew letters are on the dreidel and they are an acronym for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham”—a great miracle happened there.

Because Hanukkah is associated so closely with the education of children, it is also customary to give Chanukah gelt (money) to children on each of the 8 days of the season.  This enables the children to be taught about giving to charity from out of what one has in order to honor G-d.  The Jews remember that the Greeks did not take their possessions but rather defiled them by using them for impure pursuits.

Spiritually, Jews celebrate Hanukkah in the morning prayer service each day by reciting the complete Hallel (Psalms 113-118) and reading from the Torah about the offerings brought at the dedication of the Tabernacle.  This is a reminder to them of the Maccabean rededication of the Temple after it had been defiled by the Greeks.  A special prayer of thanksgiving (V’al Hanissim) is also inserted in the prayers and grace after meals during Hanukkah.

It is intended that the Menorah be lit by every Jew everywhere during Hanukkah in remembrance of the Menorah that burned miraculously for eight days.  Candles can be used but ideally, olive oil is considered to be more representative.  In the Torah, we see the Menorah in the first and second Temples described as having had seven branches.  After the Temples' destruction, a tradition arose among the Jewish people that nothing from the Temple should be duplicated so Menorahs began to appear having six branches.  The Hanukkah Menorah, however, has nine branches: eight to hold the oil or candles to be burned during the eight days of Hanukkah and one to hold the Shamash, which is used to light the other candles.

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