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What is Hanukkah?

Updated on December 12, 2019
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Randi was born and raised in the US. At age 35. she became an Israeli citizen and she quickly became absorbed in the language and culture.

A Commercialized Hannukah

Since Hanukkah generally coincides with the Christmas season, people tend to group it in the same holiday spirit. It has,sadly become a very commercial, gift giving extravaganza that many people don't even know what we are actually celebrating.

When I was much younger, someone came up with Chanukah Charlie so that Jewish kids wouldn't feel left out when Santa didn't come knocking at their door.

There is even a Mensch on a Bench to mimic the Elf on a Shelf!

Yet, as commercialized as it has become, we still have not agreed on a universal spelling for it! Is it Chanukah, Chanuka or Hanuka?

A public Hanukkah menorah in Donetsk, Ukraine.
A public Hanukkah menorah in Donetsk, Ukraine. | Source

What is Hanukkah?

The word Hanukkah means dedication in Hebrew. Hanukkah is known as the The Festival or Feast of Dedication or The Festival or Feast of Lights. It is an eight day festival commemorating the victory of the Maccabees* over Antiochus** in 165 b.c. as they reclaimed and rededicated the temple in Jerusalem.

*The Maccabees were leaders of a Jewish rebel army.

**Antiochus was a Greek King who was famous for his contributions to the Hellenistic Period.

Eternal Flame

The eternal flame is called Ner Tamid.(נר תמיד) It hangs above the ark in every synagogue to represent G-d's eternal presence in our lives. It is often associated with the menorah, the candelabra that stands in front of the temple in Jerusalem.

The Miracle of Hanukkah.

When the temple was recovered from the Syrians in 165, the first order of business for the Maccabean soldiers was to reignite the eternal flame.They had only enough oil for one day and did not know how long it would take for reinforcements to get back. Miraculously, that tiny bit of oil burned for eight days until help arrived. What better miracle for weary soldiers than the presence of G-d? That is why, Jewish people around the world celebrate Hanukkah for eight days and traditionally, light a candle each night to represent the miracle of the oil.

Typical Hanukkah Foods.

The most common foods we eat on Hanukkah are foods that are fried in oil. Potato pancakes (latkes or levivot) and doughnuts (suvganiyot) are the most popular. Another tradition is to give Hanukkah "gelt" (coins) Typically, children are given silver dollars as one of their gifts as well as bags of chocolate coins.

Check out my recipe for Sweet Potato Pancakes.

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Colorful dreidls sold in Israel."Latkes", infamous potato pancakes with sour cream. famous Hanukkah tradition, "Sufganiyah" (doughnuts)
Colorful dreidls sold in Israel.
Colorful dreidls sold in Israel. | Source
"Latkes", infamous potato pancakes with sour cream.
"Latkes", infamous potato pancakes with sour cream. | Source
 famous Hanukkah tradition, "Sufganiyah" (doughnuts)
famous Hanukkah tradition, "Sufganiyah" (doughnuts) | Source

How to play the Dreidel Game

  • Any number of players from age 1 to 99.
  • Each player should have at least 20 "tokens"
  • Each player puts one token in the "pot" at the beginning of each round and any time it is empty.
  • Decide who starts and which direction you will go in.
  • Each player spins the dreidl and follows these directions, depending on which side it lands:
  1. נ The player does nothing
  2. ג The player puts everything in the pot
  3. ה The player gets half the pot
  4. ש or פ The player puts one token in the pot.
  • Each player is out when he runs out of tokens.
  • The winner is the one with the most tokens.

What is a Dreidel?

The dreidel (sevivon) is a game played with a four-sided top. Each side has a different Hebrew letter printed on it that represents a sentence. In Israel, one side is different.

A dreidel in Israel:

  • נ ג ה פ
  • נס גדול היה פו
  • A great miracle happened here.

A dreidel in all other countries:

  • נ ג ה ש
  • נס גדול היה שם
  • A great miracle happened there.

The dreidel game is actually a gambling game and can be played with money, tokens or treats. The rules may vary from home to home but here are a few basic instructions:

What is your favorite holiday tradition? Feel free to add more in the comment section!

See results
Getting our Hanukkah on!
Getting our Hanukkah on! | Source

Typical Hanukkah Celebrations.

Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah during the eight days. A candle is lit for each night to represent the oil. The family generally gathers around the Menorah (Hanukkiah) at sundown and lights the candles with a prayer of blessing. It is traditional to sing Hanukkah songs and eat treats. There is generally some gift giving involved, as well. In most cultures, tradition is to give one gift for each night of Hanukkah. It doesn't have to be a big gift.The traditions vary from home to home. In our home, we give a gift every night when we light the candles but we don't always light the candles exactly at sundown. We wait for all of us to be together.

© 2013 Randi Benlulu


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