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The Story of Hanukkah

Martha Stewart Living Television

While a rabbi educates and inspires his or her congregation using the written and spoken word, a cantor does so through music. Cantor Ken Cohen, who directs the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York City and works with a congregation in Greenwich, Connecticut, explains the history of Hanukkah, then sings the prayer for the lighting of the candles.

Around 165 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), Hellenistic-Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes tried to Hellenize the land that is now Israel. Antiochus desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and prohibited the practice of Jewish rituals. But Judah Maccabee struck back: Even though he was far outnumbered by the Syrians, Judah Maccabee eventually reclaimed Jerusalem and regained access to the sacred temple.

The word "Hanukkah" means dedication. The eight-day holiday is known as the Festival of Lights because, when the Jews took back the temple, they found only enough oil to generate light for one day. But miraculously, that oil endured for eight days and nights. This miracle of light allowed the rededication of the Temple to occur. The Hanukkah menorah, the hanukiyah, holds eight candles, as opposed to the seven (for the seven days of creation) that candelabras typically accommodate. The ninth candleholder, in the center of the hanukiyah, is for the shamash, the candle that is used to light all the others. Each of the other candles is emblematic of yet another day during which the oil persisted.

The lighting of the candles at nightfall is a family affair. The menorah typically stands in a central room of the home and is often positioned near a window so that it is visible to passersby. While a prayer is said, the candles are lit from left to right. During the eight days of Hanukkah, a total of 44 candles will be lit.

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