Are you curious (or confused) about Hanukkah? We’ve got a useful guide to this remarkable Jewish holiday below!
It’s December, and you know that the holidays are just around the corner. Suddenly your Jewish friends start talking about Hanukkah, and without warning you’re hearing words like Menorah, latke, the 8 Days, and dreidel being thrown around… wait, what?!
The best part of Hanukkah for me is all of the delicious food and the gifts – as a kid you’re excited for presents and latkes, and that doesn’t change much as you grow up!
We’re de-mystifying this fascinating holiday for you below.
The story of Hanukkah:
Let’s start with the basics.
The story of Hanukkah is a prime example in history of one large power trying to push their beliefs onto a smaller group. This time, we’re talking the Greeks vs. the Israelites. The Greeks basically tried to force the Israelites to give up their Jewish faith and traditions and conform to the Greek way of life.
Not cool, Ancient Greece!
A small group of Jewish people who just couldn’t take it anymore banded together to fight. Against all odds they beat the powerful Greek army. Let’s hear it for the little guys!
The little guys in question? The Maccabees! The leader of the group is a man named Judah. Not only did Judah and the Maccabees defeat the Greeks, they were able to lead those jerks right out of Jerusalem and begin returning to their traditions in peace. To start with, they needed to light the Menorah in the Holy Temple.
But some difficulties stood in their way. The Greeks really tore things up in Jerusalem, meaning that supplies were at an all time low for our heros.
According to the story, there was only enough oil to light the Menorah in the Holy Temple for one single night… but (drumroll please)… the oil miraculously burned for 8 full days.
You’re probably thinking ‘okay, that’s a great story and all, but what do you actually do to celebrate Hanukkah?!’ Don’t worry – we’re getting to that next.
The Traditions of Hanukkah
Now, let’s get into a brief summary of the most important Hanukkah practices. (To dig deeper into Jewish traditions, head to the end of this article).
Hanukkah always begins on the eve of Kislev, that is the ninth month in the Jewish year. This year, it starts on December 12, and ends on December 20. For all future dates of the celebration in case you don’t have your Jewish almanac on hand, check out this handy-dandy site.
Lighting the Menorah
Have you heard of the Festival of Lights? That’s another name for Hanukkah.
This is of course in reference to the miracle the Maccabees experienced in the Holy Temple. To celebrate the holiday, Jews light a special candelabra called a Menorah.
Originally, a Menorah is a seven branched candelabra kept in the synagogue. This is the type of Menorah that the Maccabees were so eager to light after they fought off the Greeks. Menorahs that you find today have 8 branches instead, to represent the 8 days the oil burned in the origin story of Hanukkah.
One candle is lit each night of Hanukkah, until the last night when all 8 are illuminated (hence the 8 days of Hanukkah). Blessing and prayers are said as the candles are lit, and traditional songs are also sung before and after the lighting.
The Hanukkah Gelt is the tradition of giving gifts of money to children on Hanukkah. You mean you can get money for this holiday too?! Yup, you read right.
Well… technically only if you’re a child. But maybe if you’re lucky you could bend the rules on this one…
The dreidel is a traditional game played during Hanukkah. A dreidel is a four to six sided spinning top with Hebrew letters on each side, which all come together to form an acronym that means ‘a great miracle happened there’. Way to get all philosophical on us, dreidel, we like your style.
The game is played for a ‘pot’ of money, candy, or anything else you’d like, and the pot is won depending on which side the dreidel lands on when spun. We’d like to play for a giant pot of M&Ms please and thank you.
The Food of Hanukkah
Yes, now we’re onto the yummy stuff! There are two main foods you need to know about.
Do you like eating greasy food? Do you like potatoes? Do you like pancakes? Do you like fried, greasy, potato pancakes?! Well it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll love latkes, a potato pancake that is synonymous with Hanukkah. It is traditional to eat food cooked in oil, since the miracle being celebrated involved oil. That makes sense right?! We’ll take any excuse to load up on some fried carbs…
This tasty Hanukkah treat is basically the Israeli answer to the jelly donut…YUM. Definitely falling into the ‘fried in oil’ category, the delicious jelly that can be found in the center is just a bonus. Sufganya is eaten in Israel to celebrate the Festival of Lights and after seeing the pictures we can’t say that we blame them. Booking our next trip to Israel in 3…2…1….
Want to learn more about Hanukkah? Here are a couple ways to really get into the nitty gritty.
Jewish History tour of Paris
Did you know that France has the world’s third-largest Jewish population?
You can imagine that the country has a lot of historical stories to share about this remarkable community. So if you’re visiting France, don’t miss out on this insider’s tour on the history of the Jewish community in France through the ages, and what it’s like to be Jewish in France today.
Use discount code MENORAH for 10% off on your booking.
For continued research, here are a few sites we like: