Hanukkah is the most widely celebrated American Jewish holiday, possibly because it is a fun, child-centered occasion. It is celebrated with excellent food, like potato latkes, an exchange of gifts, and the lighting of beautiful menorahs filled with brightly colored candles. Unlike some of the other Jewish holidays, which require intense spiritual reflection or elaborate preparation, it is easy to celebrate.
Many Jewish holidays commemorate events invested with historical and religious meaning, and Hanukkah is no exception.
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah commemorates the military victory of the Jewish Maccabees and their re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The time of the Maccabees Revolt was in the 2nd century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev, according to the Hebrew calendar. It may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar. According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.
To commemorate these miracles, a Hanukkah Menorah is lit during each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah is the central observance of the festival. One candle is lit the first night, and an additional candle is lit each successive night. On the last night of Hanukkah, all eight candles of the Menorah are lit. The candles are lit by a window or door in order to fulfill the commandment to “publicize the miracle.” While lighting the candles, blessings are recited and songs are sung.
After lighting the Hanukkah candles together, families will eat and play games. The custom of giving Hanukkah Gelt (money) to children has evolved into a gift-giving tradition in many Jewish families today. Also today, families give each other Gelt made of chocolate, the traditional gold coins.
Dreidel is a traditional Hanukkah game. The classic Dreidel is a four-sided spinning top made of wood, plastic, or the proverbial clay. On the four sides of the Dreidel appear four letters from the Hebrew alphabet “nun”, “gimmel”, “hay”, and “shin”. These four letters are an acronym for “nes gadol hayah sham” – “a great miracle happened there.”
The real end game is the lesson this game has taught. We are overjoyed about the miracles and wonders God did for our ancestors. Throughout Hanukkah, this is constantly on our mind, even when we are involved with fun and games!
When all is said and done, perhaps the most important message of Hanukkah may be found in the name of the holiday itself: Dedication. When Jews have dedicated themselves, through faith and action, to the pursuit of high religious and human ideals, Judaism has been strong. That imperative, to strengthen our religion and our people, remains an important challenge at this season, in every generation. Hanukkah begins every year on the 25th of the Hebrew month of “Kislev.” This year, the 25th of Kislev corresponds to the evening of Tuesday, December 20th, 2011.