Hanukkah – The Festival of Lights
Since a lot of my friends were or are of the Jewish faith I decided to write about this interesting Festival of Lights since it comes right before the Christmas celebration beginning with tomorrow December 8th.
As the centuries have come and gone this holiday has seen many different changes and a lot of traditions and celebrations have been added to this holiday. Actually Hanukkah dates back to 167 B.C. Many Hanukkah traditions were celebrated by the Jewish people in Europe during the Middle Ages. It was at this time that the remembrance of martyrdom for the Jewish faith was particularly emphasized. An important part of this celebration is the menorah. There were seven branches for oil in ancient menorahs just like in the menorah which was used in the rededication of the temple by the Maccabees. From this time stems the fact that there are eight days of Hanukkah since the small amount of oil which was in this menorah burned for eight days and nights. It is thought that the nine branched menorah dates back to the first century and that it had one branch for every night that the oil burned and had one branch for a shamash which was the candle that was used to light all of the other candles. Modern day menorahs have real candles and some are lit by electric lights.
Also dating back to the Middle Ages is the giving of what is known as Hanukkah gelt or coins or money. This tradition comes from the time when during the celebration of the Festival of Lights coins were given to the Jewish teacher. The very roots of this custom go back to the era of the Maccabees who would mint coins in the era in which they controlled the Second Temple in Jerusalem dating from 167 to 70 B.C.E. The minting of Jewish money was looked upon as a symbol of independence. However since during the Middle Ages there were no Jewish coins then during Hanukkah those who gave money to the teacher were highlighting the importance of Jewish education.
Although tops are considered to be traditional European toys it is the dreidel which became an early symbol of Hanukkah. Legend has it that at one time when it was illegal to study the Torah during the time before the Maccabees reclaimed Jerusalem the Jewish people who wanted to secretly study the Torah would pretend that they were playing with the dreidel if Hellenic soldiers came upon them. Rabbis who administered Judaic law during the Middle Ages allowed gambling and other games at Hanukkah so playing the dreidel became popular.
During modern times Hanukkah is celebrated by eating fried foods which include potato pancakes know as latkes and doughnuts as oil is one of the symbols of this holiday. In the Middle Ages the Jewish people linked Hanukkah celebrations to the story of Judith who was known to fight for the Jewish people by feeding cheese to one of their enemy’s leaders. As a result of which the cheese made him awful thirsty and so he drank too much wine. Afterwards Judith cut off his head and so during the Middle Ages this act was commemorated by eating cheese and other kinds of dairy products.
All of these are symbols of the Festival of Lights. When it begins each of the eight nights of Hanukkah a candle is lit in the menorah or candelabra called a ”hanukkiyah” and the special ninth candle or ”shammash” also known as the servant candle is used to light the other candles. Quite often the shammash is found in the center of the other candles and has a higher position. Each night an extra candle gets lit so that on the final eighth night all of the candles are lit. There is a special blessing to thank God that is said before and after the lighting of the candles and a special Jewish hymn is sung. It is traditional to put the menorah in the front window of the house so that those who pass by will see and remember the story of Hanukkah. This is also a time of giving and receiving presents and there are gifts given on each night. During this time lots of games are played and the most popular is ”dreidel” (Yiddish) or ”sivivon” (Hebrew). The dreidel top has four sides and on each side is a Hebrew letter.
To everyone who is celebrating the Festival of Lights – Happy Hanukkah.