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Chanukah in a Nutshell
Chanukah -- the eight-day festival of light that begins on the eve of the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev -- celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality.
More than twenty-one centuries ago, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who sought to forcefully Hellenize the people of Israel. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of G-d.
When they sought to light the Temple's menorah (the seven branched candelabrum), they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks; miraculously, the one-day supply burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.
To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah. At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah (candelabrum) lighting:: a single flame on the first night, two on the second evening, and so on till the eighth night of Chanukah, when all eight lights are kindled.
Chanukah customs include eating foods fried in oil -- latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (doughnuts); playing with the dreidel (a spinning top on which are inscribed the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, "a great miracle happened there"); the giving of Chanukah gelt, gifts of money, to children; and the recitation of special prayers and hymns.
Menorah Lighting Guide
The basic elements of a kosher menorah are eight holders for oil or candles and an additional holder, set apart from the rest, for the shamash ("attendant") candle.
The Chanukah lights can either be candle flames or oil-fueled. Since the miracle of Chanukah happened with olive oil - the little cruse of oil that lasted for eight days - an oil menorah is preferable to a candle one, and olive oil is the ideal fuel. Cotton wicks are preferred because of the smooth flame they produce.
The eight candles of the menorah must be arranged in a straight, even line, not in a zigzag or with some lights higher than others. If it is an oil menorah, the oil cups must hold enough oil to burn for the required time - at least 30 minutes on weeknights, and up to one-and-a-half hours on Friday evening (see below, Special Shabbat Rules). If it is a candle menorah, the candles should be large enough to burn for the required time.
Electric menorahs are great for display purposes, and are a wonderful medium for publicizing the Chanukah miracle. But the Chanukah lights used to fulfill the mitzvah should be real flames fueled by wax or oil - like the flames in the Holy Temple.
The shamash - used to kindle the other lights - sits a bit higher or lower than the other candles, on the ninth branch of the menorah. Many have a tradition to use a beeswax candle for the shamash.
Men and women alike are obligated to participate in the menorah lighting. In some families, the head of the household lights the family menorah while everyone else listens to the blessings and answers, "Amen." In many other families, all members of the household, including children, light their own menorahs. Either way, it is important for everyone to be present and involved when the Chanukah miracle is festively commemorated.
Light Up Your Home
Light the menorah in your own home. If you are traveling out of town, set up your menorah wherever you will be staying for the night. If you will be spending the night in a Jewish home, you have the option of giving your host a dollar or so, a symbolic contribution towards the menorah expenses, and then you are covered by his/her menorah lighting-or better yet, light your own menorah too. Two candles are more powerful than one!
Students who live in dormitories or their own apartments should kindle menorahs in their own rooms.
Window or Door
In the home, there are two preferred locations for the menorah.
You can set up the menorah in a central doorway. Place it on a chair or small table near the doorpost that is opposite the mezuzah. This way, when you pass through the doorway, you are surrounded by two mitzvot-the mezuzah and the menorah. Ideally, the menorah lights should be between 12 and 40 inches off the ground.
Or you can set up your menorah on a windowsill facing the street. This option should only be exercised if the window is less than thirty feet above ground-level.
The Chanukah lights are kindled every night of Chanukah. The Maccabees chased away the forces of darkness with swords; we do it with light.
The custom of many communities (and such is the Chabad-Lubavitch custom) is to light the menorah shortly after sunset. In other communities, the menorah is kindled after nightfall (approximately thirty minutes after sunset). Either way, the menorah must contain enough fuel to burn for at least thirty minutes after nightfall. Note: The standard Chanukah candles only last approximately 30 minutes. If using those candles, then light after nightfall every night (aside for Friday).
Regardless of the custom you follow on other Chanukah nights, on Friday night the menorah is lit before sunset, and on Saturday night it is lit after nightfall. See below, Special Shabbat Rules, for more information.
Ideally, you should light the menorah at the earliest possible opportunity. Only delay if you are awaiting the arrival of family members who wish to be present when the menorah is lit. The Chanukah lights may be lit as long as there are people in the streets, or as long as there is another family member awake to participate-but no later than one half hour before dawn. (If no other household member is awake and the streets are already quiet, light the menorah without reciting the blessing.)
Lighting the Menorah
1. Arrange the lights on the menorah. On the first night, set one candle to the far right of the menorah. On the following night, add a second light to the left of the first one, and then add one light each night of Chanukah-moving from right to left.
2. Gather everyone in the house around the menorah.
3. Light the shamash candle. Hold it in your right hand (unless you are left-handed).
4. While standing, recite the appropriate blessings.
5. Light the candles. Each night, light the newest (left-most) candle first and continue lighting from left to right. (We add lights to the menorah from right to left, while we light from left to right.)
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech ha-olam a-sher ki-de-sha-nu be-mitz-vo-tav ve-tzi-va-nu le-had-lik ner Chanukah.
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech ha-olam she-a-sa ni-sim la-avo-te-nu ba-ya-mim ha-hem bi-z'man ha-zeh.
[Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.]
Before the first night of Chanukah, on Wednesday evening, December 1, (or the first time on Chanukah you perform this mitzvah), add the following blessing:
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech ha-olam she-heche-ya-nu ve-ki-yi-ma-nu ve-higi-a-nu liz-man ha-zeh.
[Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.]
Relish the Lights
After you finish kindling the menorah lights, place the shamash candle in its designated place on the menorah. At this point it is traditional to sing Chanukah hymns such as Haneirot Halalu and/or Maoz Tzur.
Linger around the menorah for about half an hour (aside for Friday afternoon, when Shabbat preparations are in full gear). Share some Chanukah stories with your family, enjoy some traditional Chanukah foods.
Many women refrain from performing household chores during the first half hour that the lights are burning, to honor the brave Jewish women who played a significant role in the Chanukah victory.
Special Shabbat Rules
It is forbidden to light a fire on Shabbat, which extends from sunset on Friday evening until nightfall of Saturday night. Therefore, on Friday afternoon, light the menorah before the Shabbat candles. Shabbat candles are traditionally lit eighteen minutes before sundown. Use additional oil or larger candles for the Friday night Chanukah lights, as they must remain lit until one half hour after nightfall - approximately 1½ hours after the Friday afternoon lighting time. Note: The standard 30-minute Chanukah candles cannot be used on Friday.
For the duration of Shabbat, do not relight any flames that have gone out or move the menorah, nor should you prepare the Saturday night Chanukah lights during the Day of Rest.
On Saturday night, light the menorah after Shabbat ends at nightfall. Traditionally, the menorah is kindled immediately after the havdalah service.
During the eight days of Chanukah, we add the V'al Hanissim ("And for the miracles...") section in the amidah (daily silent prayers) and in the Grace after Meals. In this section we summarize the miracles of the Maccabee victory, and thank G‑d for the "miracles, redemption, mighty deeds, saving acts and wonders" that He wrought for our ancestors.
Click here for the Hebrew text of the V'al Hanissim, as well as an English translation.
Every day of Chanukah, we recite the complete Hallel in the course of the morning prayers. The Hallel is a sequence of praise and gratitude-themed psalms (Psalms 113-118) that is recited on Jewish holidays.
The Torah is read every day immediately following the Hallel. The Chanukah readings are from the Book of Numbers (7:1-8:4), and discuss the dedication of the Tabernacle, the gifts that the tribal leaders brought in honor of the inauguration, and the command to Aaron to kindle the Tabernacle Menorah daily.
On Chanukah, too, we celebrate the dedication (or, to be precise, the re-dedication) of the Temple by the Maccabees after it had been defiled and contaminated by the Greeks. And the command to Aaron to kindle the Menorah is also an allusion to the Chanukah Menorah, a mitzvah that we have thanks to the bravery of Aaron's descendants-the priestly Hasmonean family that led the Maccabeean armies in battle against the Greeks.
Click here for the Chanukah readings along with commentary and contemporary insights.
Chanukah Customs & Traditions
During Chanukah it is customary to give gelt (money) to children, so that we can teach them to give some of it to charity-and just to keep things festive and happy. Some have the admirable custom of gelt-giving each weeknight of Chanukah. In Chabad, it is customary to give gelt every night, but to hand out a heftier sum on the fourth or fifth night.
Click here for some deeper reasons for the Chanukah gelt custom.
On Chanukah, it is also customary to increase one's daily disbursement to charity.
Oil played a significant role in the Chanukah story-the small jug of oil that miraculously provided fuel for the Temple Menorah for eight days. It is a Jewish tradition to eat foods that reflect the significance of a holiday - such as matzah on Passover, and apple dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah - and Chanukah is no exception. For at least the last thousand years, Jews have traditionally eaten oily foods on Chanukah.
Among the most popular Chanukah dishes are potato latkes (pancakes) and sufganiot (deep-fried doughnuts).
Oil is also symbolic of the spiritual war waged by the Maccabees. See The War Is All About The Oil for more on this topic.
It is also customary to eat dairy foods on Chanukah, in commemoration of the bravery of Yehudit. Click here to read the story of this brave woman whose daring courage led to a great Maccabee victory.
Click here for traditional Chanukah recipes.
Dreidel Playing Guide
The traditional Chanukah dreidel (spinning top) is a throwback to the times when the Greek armies of King Antiochus controlled the Holy Land, before the Maccabees defeated them and sent them packing. The powerful regime passed a series of laws outlawing the study of Torah and many of the mitzvot.
Jewish children resorted to learning Torah in outlying areas and forests. In case an enemy patrol was spotted, the children pulled out and started playing with small tops and would hide their texts.
The classic dreidel is a four sided spinning top. On the four sides of the dreidel appear four letters from the Hebrew alphabet-nun (נ), gimmel (ג), hey (ה), and shin (ש). These four letters are an acronym for "nes gadol hayah sham"-"a great miracle happened there."
- All players sit around the playing area.
- The "ante" -- nuts, pennies, nickels, chocolate coins, nuts, or just about anything else -- is equally divided amongst all players.
- Everyone puts one unit of the ante (penny, nut, etc.) into the pot.
- The one who has first turn is followed in clockwise direction by all the others.
- Player A spins the dreidel while everyone waits in utter suspense.
If the dreidel lands on a...
Nun - נ
You've just wasted your time. Absolutely nothing happens. Nun stands for the Yiddish word nul, which means zero, nothing, nil. After your exercise in futility it's time now for the player to your left to take a spin.
If however your dreidel landed on a...
Gimmel - ג
Wow! Amazing! You did it! You get to take the whole pot! Take it quick and then do a little victory dance around the room. Gimmel stands for gantz, which means whole. Everyone, including you, now puts another unit of the ante into the pot, and the person to your left tries his luck at spinning.
But, it's hard to be so lucky every time. Sometimes your dreidel will land on a...
Hey - ה
Okay, you could have done better, but you could have done worse. You get to take half of the pot. Hey stands for halb, half. The pot has now been diminished, and it's time for the player to your left to take a stab at riches.
But don't complain. The dreidel could have landed on a...
Shin - ש
The absolute worst. The dregs. You now have to put another unit into the pot! Shin is for shenk; yes, that means give. Your hope now is that the pot will still be around next time it is your turn to spin. Maybe then you'll get a gimmel and recoup your losses...
The Chanukah Story
Under Syrian Rule
More than 2000 years ago there was a time when the land of Israel was part of the Greek-Syrian Empire, dominated by Syrian rulers of the dynasty of the Seleucids. In 174 BCE, Antiochus IV ascended to the throne. He was a tyrant of a rash and impetuous nature, contemptuous of religion and of the feelings of others. He was called "Epiphanes," meaning "the gods' beloved." But a historian of his time, Polebius, gave him the epithet Epimanes ("madman"), a title more suitable to the character of this harsh and cruel king.
Desiring to unify his kingdom through the medium of a common religion and culture, Antiochus tried to root out the individualism of the Jews by suppressing all the Jewish Laws. He removed the righteous High Priest, Yochanan, from the Temple in Jerusalem, and in his place installed Yochanan's brother Joshua, who loved to call himself by the Greek name of Jason. For he was a member of the Hellenist party, and he used his high office to spread more and more of the Greek customs among the priesthood.
Joshua or Jason was later replaced by another man, Menelaus, who had promised the king that he would bring in more money than Jason did. When Yochanan, the former High Priest, protested against the spread of the Hellenists' influence in the Holy Temple, the ruling High Priest hired murderers to assassinate him.
Antiochus was at that time engaged in a war against Egypt. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, a rumor spread that a serious accident had befallen Antiochus. Thinking that he was dead, the people rebelled against Menelaus. The treacherous High Priest fled together with his friends.
Antiochus returned from Egypt. When he heard what had taken place in Jerusalem, he ordered his army to fall upon the Jews. Thousands of Jews were killed. Antiochus then enacted a series of harsh decrees against the Jews. Jewish worship was forbidden; the scrolls of the Law were confiscated and burned. Sabbath rest, circumcision and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death.
Antiochus's men went from town to town and from village to village to force the inhabitants to worship pagan gods. Only one refuge area remained and that was the hills of Judea with their caves. But even there did the Syrians pursue the faithful Jews, and many thousands of Jews died martyr's deaths.
One day the henchmen of Antiochus arrived in the village of Modin where Mattityahu, the old priest, lived. The Syrian officer built an altar in the marketplace of the village and demanded that Mattityahu offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. Mattityahu replied, "I, my sons and my brothers are determined to remain loyal to the covenant which our G‑d made with our ancestors!"
Thereupon, a Hellenistic Jew approached the altar to offer a sacrifice. Mattityahu grabbed his sword and killed him, and his sons and friends fell upon the Syrian officers and men. They killed many of them and chased the rest away. They then destroyed the altar.
Mattityahu knew that Antiochus would be enraged when he heard what had happened. He would certainly send an expedition to punish him and his followers. Mattityahu, therefore, left the village of Modin and fled together with his sons and friends to the hills of Judea.
All loyal and courageous Jews joined them. They formed legions and from time to time they left their hiding places to fall upon enemy detachments and outposts, and to destroy the pagan altars that were built by order of Antiochus.
Before his death, Mattityahu called his sons together and urged them to continue to fight in defense of G d's Torah. In waging warfare, he said, their leader should be Yehuda the Strong. Yehuda was called "Maccabee," a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words Mi Komocho Bo'eilim Hashem, "Who is like You, O G‑d."
Antiochus sent his General Apolonius to wipe out Yehuda and his followers, the Maccabees. Though greater in number and equipment than their adversaries, the Syrians were defeated by the Maccabees. Antiochus sent out another expedition which also was defeated. He realized that only by sending a powerful army could he hope to defeat Yehuda and his brave fighting men.
An army consisting of more than 40,000 men swept the land under the leadership of two commanders, Nicanor and Gorgiash. When Yehuda and his brothers heard of that, they exclaimed: "Let us fight unto death in defense of our souls and our Temple!" After a series of battles the war was won.
Now the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to liberate it. They entered the Temple and cleared it of the idols placed there by the Syrian vandals. Yehuda and his followers built a new altar, which he dedicated on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev, in the year 3622 (139 BCE).
Since the golden Menorah had been stolen by the Syrians, the Maccabees now made one of cheaper metal. When they wanted to light it, they found only a small cruse of pure olive oil bearing the seal of the High Priest Yochanan. It was sufficient to light only for one day. By a miracle of G‑d, it continued to burn for eight days, till new oil was made available. That miracle proved that G‑d had again taken His people under His protection. In memory of this, our sages appointed these eight days for annual thanksgiving and for lighting candles.