It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like… Hanukkah

Two candles plus the Shamash commemorated the second night of Hanukkah at a celebration in 2020.

By Anna Breuer on 28 November 2021
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It may only be the end of November but last week’s Thanksgiving celebrations were a reminder that the holiday season is upon us and the festival of Hanukkah starts Sunday night, the 28th.

First, a brief word about the events that led to the modern eight-day celebration.  The festival commemorates the recovery of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Second Temple at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire, a Greek state, in the second century BCE.  Also written in English as Chanukah or in German as Chanukka, the holiday recalls the somewhat unlikely victory of the Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors. In rededicating the temple lamp, they found enough consecrated oil to last for one day but in what is referred to as the “miracle of Hanukkah,” that oil lasted for eight days.

Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil, with families enjoying tasty tidbits fried in it, such as latkes (crispy potato pancakes) that are smothered in either sour cream or apple sauce (my preference). Other dishes of the holiday season include Sufganiyot, a cross between a beignet and a jelly donut.  In prewar Europe, roast goose was often at the center of the festive table.

Despite being a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar (on major holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, work is forbidden) the holiday took off as an alternative to Christmas over 150 years ago as Jewish immigrants sought to provide their children with a festival that would bring them songs, special holiday foods, and of course presents.

Rabbis Max Lilienthal of Mound Street Temple in Cincinnati, who learned of Christmas celebrations held in local churches for children and created a Hanukkah assembly, where the story of the Maccabees was told, blessing and hymns were sung, the Hanukkah candles were lighted, and sweets and gifts were distributed to children.

Rabbi Isaac Wise, a friend of Rabbi Lilienthal, organized a similar event at his congregation, also in Cincinnati.

The two publicized the concept, urging congregations across the country to adopt similar Hanukkah practices and, as a result, the celebration of Hanukkah took off in the United States.

Of course, the holiday has not been immune to the pressures that brought about the commercialization of Christmas.  Musical menorahs playing Hanukkah songs entered the market in the 1950s, along with dreidels filled with Hanukkah gelt, gold colored foil covered chocolate coins, and Hallmark sells over one million Hanukkah cards each year, the company reports.

Celebrating Hanukkah is easy.  Each night, families light a candle or oil-based lamp.  The number of candles is increased daily by one until reaching eight on the eighth night, and an extra light, called a shamash, meaning “attendant” or “sexton,” is used to light the others. It is placed in a distinct location, somewhat separate from the others.

Many families place the lit candles – or an electric equivalent – in the window for passers-by to see and to be reminded of the miracle. Two blessings are recited when lighting the candles (three on the first night).

After lighting the candles, families typically sing Hanukkah songs and give children their gifts.

Children (and many adults) play spin the dreidel.  The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top that is imprinted with Hebrew letters as abbreviation for the words נס גדול היה שם, Nes Gadol, Haya Sham, or “A great miracle happened there,” and there are various localized customs and rules that allow players to earn points based on which letter the dreidel displays on top when it stops spinning.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

Accura News

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