The History of Hanukkah and All of Its Traditions
Why we celebrate by eating latkes, lighting candles, and playing with dreidels.
Much in the way that 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. 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 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 menorah 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.
Set at the table, 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.
Another tradition is the game of dreidel, a spinning top printed with a Hebrew letter on each of its four sides. Long before Hanukkah, versions of the dreidel had been played by children in other languages and other countries across centuries. The current version of the game that is now associated with Hanukkah has the Hebrew letters "nun", "gimmel", "hey", and "shin" that represent the first letters in the phrase "nes gadol haya sham," meaning "A Great Miracle Happened There," in reference to Jerusalem.
As part of the feast, latkes are delicious fried potato cakes with an interesting connection to Hanukkah. In the Book of Judith (which did not make it into the biblical canon), a Jewish woman named Judith takes down an Assyrian general by feeding him wine and salty cheese cakes. He falls asleep, and Judith beheads him and saves her village from being overtaken by his army. According to historians, the association between latkes and Hanukkah actually began in the Middle Ages, long after the first Hanukkah, and the connection is not really a direct one at all. But now the cakes are an ingrained tradition and a rather tasty one that we love. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Judith overcame her oppressor like the Maccabees overcame theirs.
Where does gift-giving come into the traditions of Hanukkah? Like the tradition of latkes, gift-giving is a newer tradition that was not part of the original celebrations of Hanukkah. There are two possible explanations for why gifts are given during Hanukkah. One of them is that Hanukkah often corresponds to the Christian Christmas, and gift-giving is really fun to do. Another is that gift-giving could have evolved from the tradition of giving people money during Hanukkah so that they could afford candles for the celebration.