Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight-day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.
Ironically, Chanukkah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.
The story of Chanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt, and the Land of Israel, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs, the dress, etc., in much the same way that Jews in the West today blend into the secular Western society.
More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Selucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.
Chanukkah is not a very important religious holiday. The holiday's religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu'ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and you will not find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim! Chanukkah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is told in the book of Maccabbees, which Jews do not accept as scripture.
The main religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three berakhot (blessings) are recited: l'hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking God for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking God for allowing us to reach this time of year). The first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour. Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first).
Why the shammus candle? The Chanukkah candles are for pleasure only; we are not allowed to use them for any productive purpose. We keep an extra one around (the shammus), so that if we need to do something useful with a candle, we do not accidentally use the Chanukkah candles. The shammus candle is at a different height so that it is easily identified as the shammus.
It is traditional to eat fried foods on this holiday, because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Among Ashkenazic Jews, this usually includes latkes (pronounced "lot-kuhs" or "lot-keys" depending on where your grandmother comes from; whatever they are called, they are potato pancakes).
Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians, as a way of dealing with our children's jealousy of their Christian friends. The only traditional gift of the holiday is "gelt", small amounts of money.
Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel (in Yiddish, or sevivon in Hebrew), a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimmel, Heh, and Shin (Pe in Israel).
This supposedly stands for the Hebrew phrase "nes gadol hayah sham (po)", a great miracle happened there (here in Israel). Actually, it stands for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half), and shtell (put), which is the rules of the game! There are some variations in the way people play the game. A person spins the dreidel. On Nun, nothing happens; on Gimmel (or, as kids call it, "gimme!"), you get the whole pot; on Heh, you get half of the pot; and on Shin (Pe), you put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one in. Keep playing until one person has everything. Then redivide it, because nobody likes a poor winner.
A traditional song of this holiday is Maoz Tzur, better known to Christians as Rock of Ages (the tune is the same as one of the more popular ones; the Christian translation takes substantial liberties).
Shred the potatoes, onion, and bell pepper into a large bowl. Press out all excess liquid. Add eggs and parsley and mix well. Add matzah meal gradually while mixing until the batter is doughy, not too dry. (you may not need the whole amount, depending on how well you drained the vegetables). Add a few dashes of salt and black pepper. (do not taste the batter -- it is really awful!). Do not worry if the batter turns a little orange; that will go away when it fries.
Heat about 1/2 inch of oil to a medium heat. Form the batter into thin patties about the size of a hamburger. Fry batter in oil. Be patient; this takes time, and flipping too much will burn the outside. Flip when the bottom is golden brown.
Place finished latkes on paper towels to drain. Eat hot with sour cream or applesauce. They reheat OK in a microwave, but not in an oven unless you cook them just right.
* The peppers and parsley are not traditional, but they are good here. You may also put in other vegetables, like carrots and celery, and make vegetable latkes.
Chanukkah begins on the following days on the civil calendar:
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