(A download option for this article in PDF can be found below.)
What is the history behind Ḥanukka? The history behind Ḥanukka starts in the 2nd century before the common era. The ruler over Syria from 215 BCE until 164 BCE was Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus was of Greek decent and the Greek religion and culture (which was called Hellenism) was dominant in his entire empire. As the Land of Israel was part of Greater Syria, he also ruled over the Jews who lived there. The High Priest in Jerusalem at that time was Ḥoni (his Greek name was Onias) III. At that time, there was a group of Jews who wanted to abolish Judaism and replace it with Hellenism. One of them was Onias’ brother Jason. Jason bribed Antiochus to become High Priest instead, and he promised to change Jerusalem into a Greek city and name it Antioch. A competition arose between different people over the position of High Priest. A person called Melenaus killed Onias and took over, then Jason drove out Melenaus… Eventually Antiochus attacked Jerusalem with his army, plundered the Temple and led the people away as slaves. From that moment on, Antiochus forbade the practice of Judaism. According to the First Book of Maccabees, Torah scrolls were burned, anyone who owned a Torah was executed. Anyone who kept Shabbat or Jewish holidays was also killed. If anyone circumcised their baby boy, the entire family would be killed. This suppression of Judaism was, unfortunately, supported by those “Hellenist” Jews who wanted to do away with Judaism. The Hellenists placed a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem. Pigs and other unclean animals were sacrificed on the altar. All over the land of Israel, statues of idols were set up and sacrifices were offered to them. When in the year 167 BCE, in the town of Modiin, a Hellenistic Jew was bringing a sacrifice to an idol, a Jewish priest (kohen) by the name of Matityahu the Ḥashmonean who lived there, killed the Hellenist. He, together with his five sons, fled for his life into the wilderness of Judea. Mattityahu dies a year later (in 166 BCE) but his son Yehuda (Juda), who was nicknamed “the Maccabee” (the Hammer) organized a Jewish resistance army. These fighters also called themselves the Maccabees. After several battles, the Maccabees conquered Jerusalem from the Hellenists. They destroyed the idols, ritually purified and rededicated the Temple (Ḥanukka means dedication), lit the Menorah, and reestablished Jewish worship. Yehuda’s brother Yehonatan was installed as the new High Priest. The Maccabees became both High Priests and kings (the called the Ḥashmoneans) and remained independent for about 100 years until the Romans took control.
What exactly do we celebrate on Ḥanukka and why does it last for eight days? There are a few different recorded reasons for the Festival of Ḥanukka and why it is celebrated for eight days (nothing is simple in Judaism). The oldest recorded explanations are found in the First and Second books of Maccabees. 1 Maccabees (1:36-59) tells us that the temple was rededicated on exactly the same day as when the Hellenists had profaned it: the 25th day of Kislew. (By the way, there are strong indications that – at that time – this day coincided with the 25th of December, which later would become Christmas for the Christians. Thefirst reason for Ḥanukka is therefore that Juda Maccabee and his brothers decided that this victory and re-dedication of the Temple should be celebrated each year. But why eight days? As the Torah describes, the initial dedication of the Tabernacle took eight days, and as the same ritual of dedication must have been observed, this would explain why the re-dedication by the Maccabees took eight days as well. That is one explanation why Juda Maccabee decided that an eight-day festival should be celebrated each following year.
Asecond reason: The Second Book of Maccabees (10:6) tells us that the Maccabees had to wander around and hide in the mountains and caves to stay safe from their enemies, and that they had not been able to celebrate the Festival of Sukkot. As soon as they conquered and rededicated the temple, they made up for Sukkot in the best way they could. 2 Maccabees 10:16 says: “They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing in the manner of the festival of Sukkot…” As we all know, Sukkot (if we include Shemini Aṣeret) has eight days as well (inside the Land of Israel. 2 Maccabees tells us that on that first year, they even waved palm branches (lulabîm)! This is most likely the reason why during Ḥanukka we say (full) Hallel for eight days, something that is otherwise only done on Sukkot! So, the second reason why eight days are celebrated is that it parallels the eight days of Sukkot.
Athird reason; a miracle Surely, the victory of a small groups of rebels over a mighty army was already a significant miracle. But there are two more miracles recorded. The first one is mentioned in 2 Maccabees 1:18-36. According to this story, when the Babylonians had taken the Jewish people into exile, some had secretly taken the holy fire from the altar and secretly had kept it burning in a cave. However, 2 Maccabees tells us that the fire had stopped burning and had turned into a liquid. When the Temple was rebuilt and dedicated by Nehemiah, he took this liquid that he had brought with him from Babylonia and poured it on the altar, after which it miraculously turned back into fire. This miracle had happened centuries before the Maccabean victory but according to 2 Maccabees, this miracle has also taken place on the 25th of Kislew, and there had already been a festival to celebrate it. Another reason why it was appropriate to re-dedication (Ḥanukka) the Temple on that same day. It this story is accurate, then Ḥanukka had already existed before but only received an added meaning when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple on that same day.
Afourth reason; the miracle of Ḥanukka Finally, there is the most well-known explanation, the famous story, only known to us from the Talmud and written down 600 years after the victory of the Maccabees. According to the Talmud, when the Maccabees purified the Temple, there was no ritually pure oil available to light the Menorah with, except for a small, sealed jar with only enough oil to burn just for one day. The Maccabees used that oil to light the Menorah, even though it would take another seven days to produce fresh, ritually pure olive oil. The Talmud tells us that, by miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, enough time to produce new oil. This is how the Talmud explains why eight days are observed. It is meaningful that the rabbis of the Talmud decided not to highlight a military victory, but instead focused on a more spiritual miracle: the miraculous increasing of light in the middle of darkness. In any case, Ḥanukka is a celebration of the victory of good over evil, freedom over oppression, light over darkness, of the freedom to be our unique selves (in our case Jewish) over the pressure to give up our identity and be like anyone else.
How do we celebrate Ḥanukka? Each evening of Ḥanukka, we light a lamp. Many people nowadays use candles. Originally, it was an oil lamp, and that is what the Talmud describes. Some people believe that it should be an oil lamp, because the miracle of Ḥanukka had to do specifically with oil. The basic rule is actually quite simple: Each household lights one candle or lamp each evening as a proclamation of God’s miracles, either just outside the door or if that isn’t possible in front of the window so that anyone who passes by can see it. It should be lit not too late but in the earlier part of the evening so there is more chance that others actually see it. If one wants to perform the miṣwa in an even nicer way, then each evening, we may light one light for each member of the household. So, if the household is six people (man, wife and four children), then you light six lights each evening. The nicest way, if possible (this is what almost everyone does nowadays) is to start with one light and add an extra light each evening so that you light eight lamps/candles on the eighth night.
Why do people use Ḥanukka Menorahs? First of all, it is important to know that there is no need for a menorah at all. As we saw, lighting one light each evening is already enough to fulfill the miṣwa, and that certainly does not require a menorah. And even if we choose to add an extra light each night, adding up to eight in the last evening, it is not required to use a menorah. We can just use separate lights/lamps/candles, maybe in beer- or lemonade bottles or in anything else. Ḥanukka menorahs are only made and sold for the design. By the way, Sephardi Jews prefer to use oil, if possible.
Even if a Ḥanukka menorah is not required, why does it have nine arms? The reason is as follows: The lights of Ḥanukka are only meant to proclaim God’s help and deliverance, His wondrous victory, and his miracles. The lights are not supposed to serve any other purpose. Therefore, we are not allowed to use the flames four our own benefit, for instance to light something else, or even to read by their light for reading or for seeing our way around in the house. Therefore, we need an extra light that is brighter, or at least higher or closer to us than the Ḥanukka lights, so that we use that extra light (which is not really a Ḥanukka light) instead of the others. For that reason, most Ḥanukka menorahs have an extra ninth arm, which is always higher than the others or sticking out to the side closer towards us. Some people may say that, if the ninth arm is not standing out form the other eight, that it is not a “kosher” menorah. However, we can always place a separate light or candle next to it, as long as it is brighter of higher or closer to us.
How do we light? For those who have a Shearith Israel daily prayer book, the prayers for Ḥanukka can be found on page 363-364. Each evening, before we light, we say the following two blessings. Someone who cannot read the Hebrew, can say it in English or in any other language that he/she understands:
These lights we kindle are to recognize the miracles, the liberation, the strength, the rescues, the wonders, and the consolations that You performed for our ancestors through Your holy priests, at this season in ancient days. During all eight days of Ḥanukka, these lights are sacred to us, and we are not permitted to use them for ourselves but only to look at them, in order to give thanks to You for Your miracles and rescues, and wonders.
After having said this, we immediately light the extra lamp/candle. Some people light the extra light at the very beginning, even before the blessings. Ashkenazim call this extra light the “Shammash” and use it to light the actual Ḥanukka light(s).
A song of David for the dedication of the Temple. 1 Lord, You lifted me out of my troubles. You did not give my enemies a reason to laugh, so I will praise you. 2 Lord my God, I prayed to you, and You healed me. 3 Lord, You lifted me out of the grave. I was falling into the place of death, but You saved my life. 4 Sing praise to the Lord, you who are loyal to him! Celebrate His holy name! 5 His anger lasts only for a short moment, but His kindness lasts a lifetime. The night may be filled with tears, but in the morning we sing for joy! 6 When I was safe and secure, I thought nothing could hurt me. 7 Lord, when You were kind to me, You had made me strong as a mountain. But when You turned away from me, I became filled with fear. 8 I turned and prayed to You, O Lord. I asked You, Lord, to show me mercy. 9 I said, “What good is it if I die and go down to the grave? Shall the dead, who lie in the dirt, praise You? Shall they tell anyone how faithful You are? 10 Lord, hear me, and be kind to me. Lord, be my helper!” 11 Then You changed my sorrow into dancing. You have taken away my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. 12 So I can praise You and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever!
Ashkenazim sing a song called Maoz Tṣur, and nowadays, many Sephardim sing it as well. There are however a few problems with this song. Not many people actually realize what they sing, but Maoz Tṣur is basically an anti-Christian song, which is somewhat understandable as it was written about 1,000 years ago in a time (called the Crusades) when Christian bands went from town to town and killed entire Jewish communities. In the first stanza (the 3rd line), God is asked to bring about a massacre (מטבח), and in the last stanza, the song asks for the end and destruction of Christianity. Singing a hateful song may have been understandable in the time of the Crusades, but especially in our time, when most Christians are not viciously anti-Jewish, it is not a nice thing to sing this with our children. For that reason, I have written another version of Maoz Tṣur without requests for blood, vengeance and violence. I have recorded three different tunes.
Refuge, Rock of my salvation To You it is proper to offer praise. Prepare the house of my prayers And there I will offer thanksgiving offerings. When you will rejoice The hearts of all that praise you. Then shall we conclude with a psalm, a song, For the inauguration of the altar.
Israel was full of misery From grief his strength expired. His life was embittered by hardship Slaving for the Empire of the Calf. But by Your great hand, You took out Your cherished nation. Pharaoh’s army and his arrogance Sank into the deep like a stone.
The oppression was heavy under the hand of the Hellenists. You sent salvation and the Hasmoneans were victorious. Evil people were chased away, idols were broken Abraham’s altar was rebuilt The righteous rejoiced.
Stretch out Your holy arm and bring Your redemption near. Rejoice the heart of Your servants. Rebuild the house of Your glory. To dwell amid Your people Because we wait for Your redemption. Make Your name great For all the nations of the earth.
Here is a recording of my version of Maoz Tṣur in the traditional melody that is sung by most people:
Some people may find it uncomfortable that this melody is actually taken from a German Christian hymn “Rejoice, O Christians all together.” I personally like to use another tune. One of my favorite melodies for Maoz Tṣur is a Sephardi tune called Bendigamos. What is interesting is that the song that this melody is taken from (called Bendigamos) is especially sung during Sukkot. As we already saw that Ḥanukka has many connections to Sukkot, using this melody is appropriate. Here is my recording of Maoz Tṣur on the melody of Bendigamos:
Then, there is yet another way to sing it, namely on a classical tune. This melody was composed by George Friedrich Handel, and he actually called it “See the Conqu'ring Hero Come”, a piece from his oratori "Judas Maccabaeus" So, it cannot get more appropriate than that…! The words are sung rather fast, and therefore it might be harder to use this melody. Most likely, the Bendigamos melody may be the best choice. In any case, here is my recording of Maoz Tṣur on Handel’ melody:
Are there any special prayers in the synagogue? In the daily prayers, there are insertions in the “Modim Anaḥnu Lakh” blessing specially for Ḥanukka. Also, each day, after the Amida, we say (full) Hallel.
I heard about a dreidel. What is a dreidel? Dreidel is a Yiddish word and it means a spinning top. In Hebrew it is called sevivon. It is a game that Ashkenazim play on Ḥanukka. In all honesty, you hear a lot about it, but I have never seen people play it for longer than a few minutes.
What are latkes and sufganiyot? There is a tradition that people have (not a rule) to eat foods fried in oil, as a reminder of the miracle with the oil that is mentioned in the Talmud. Latkes, sufganiyot, and doughnuts are popular Ashkenazi Ḥanukka food treats that are fried in oil. Sephardim have their own dishes, such as cassola (cheese pancakes), buñuelos (fritters with orange glaze), keftes (patties), and shamlias (fried pastries).
What can we wish each other on Ḥanukka? You may hear people say Ḥag Ḥanukka Sameaḥ (Happy Ḥanukka Holiday) or Ḥag ha-Orot Sameaḥ (Happy Holiday of Lights), but this is not correct. Even though in Israel, people call all holidays Ḥag, according to the Torah, only Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are Ḥag (Chag). (Ḥag really means pilgrimage festival; the kind of holiday when one is obligated to go to Jerusalem.) The obvious solution seems to be Ḥanukka Sameaḥ, but there is another problem with that. In Israel, it has become normal on certain holidays to say Ḥanukka Sameaḥ or Ḥag Sameaḥ, but in Biblical Hebrew Sameaḥ means feeling happiness. Since a holiday cannot feel happiness, in Hebrew, the day cannot be happy. We can be happy on the day, or the day can give us happiness, but that would be Ḥanukka Mesamméaḥ. For that same reason, in the holiday prayer books, we ask God not for Mo3adim Seméḥim (Happy Holidays) but for Mo3adim le-Simḥa (Holidays for Joy). Therefore, it is more correct to say Ḥanukka le-Simḥa (May Ḥanukka be for Joy). Of course, in English, we can say HappyḤanukka. Another beautiful Sephardi greeting is Ḥanukka Alegre. This is Spanish, and it means: A Joyful Ḥanukka!
For the morning service on Shabbat Ḥanukka, some Sephardi congregations have a special tune for the song Én kÈlohénu which is sung towards the very end of the service. The melody is taken from Georg Friedrich Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabaeus which is called See the Conqu'ring Hero Come. This is how it sounds:
Here is a download option for the blessings, prayers, and Maoz Tṣur: