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ABC’s of Chanukah (Hanukkah)
Everything you need to know about the holiday of Chanukah
Chanukah (Hanukkah), the Festival of Lights, begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev and lasts for eight days. On the secular calendar, Chanukah generally falls out in December.
This primer will explore:
(1) A Bit of History
The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication.” In the 2nd century BCE, during the time of the Second Holy Temple, the Syrian-Greek regime of Antiochus sought to pull Jews away from Judaism with the hopes of assimilating them into Greek culture. Antiochus outlawed Jewish observance, including circumcision, Shabbat, and Torah study, under the penalty of death. As well, many Jews, called Hellenists, began to assimilate into Greek culture, taking on Greek names and marrying non-Jews. This began to destroy the foundation of Jewish life and practice.
When the Greeks challenged the Jews to sacrifice a pig to a Greek god, a few courageous Jews took to the hills of Judea in open revolt against this threat to Jewish life. Led by Matitiyahu, and later his son Judah the Maccabee, this small band of pious Jews led guerrilla warfare against the Syrian-Greek army.
Antiochus sent thousands of well-armed troops to crush the rebellion, but after three years the Maccabees beat incredible odds and miraculously succeeded in driving the foreigners from their land. The victory was on the scale of Israel defeating the combined superpowers of today.
Jewish fighters entered Jerusalem and found the Holy Temple in shambles and desecrated with idols. The Maccabees cleansed the temple and re-dedicated it on the 25th of Kislev. When it came time to relight the Menorah, they searched the entire temple but found only one jar of pure oil bearing the seal of the High Priest. The group of believers lit the Menorah anyway and were rewarded with a miracle: That small jar of oil burned for eight days, until a new supply of oil could be brought.
From then on, Jews have observed a holiday for eight days in honor of this historic victory and the miracle of oil. To publicize the Chanukah miracle, Jews add the special Hallel praises to the Shacharit service and light a menorah during the eight nights of Chanukah.
(2) Lighting Instructions
In Ashkenazi tradition, each person lights his own menorah. Sefardi tradition has just one menorah per family.
What Menorah to Light
To publicize which night of Chanukah it is, all eight candles on the menorah should be at the same height ― and preferably in a straight line. Otherwise, the candles may not be easily distinguishable and may appear like a big torch.
In addition to the eight main lights, the menorah has an extra helper candle called the “Shamash.” As we are forbidden to use the Chanukah lights for any purpose other than “viewing,” any benefit is as if it’s coming from the Shamash.
Since the Shamash does not count as one of the eight regular lights, your menorah should have the Shamash set apart in some way—either placed higher than the other candles or off to the side.
What Candles to Light
The most important thing is that your candles must burn for at least 30 minutes after nightfall. (Those famous colored candles barely qualify!) Many Jewish bookstores sell longer-colored candles.
Actually, it is even better to use olive oil, since the miracle of the Maccabees occurred with olive oil. Glass cups containing oil can be placed in the candle holders of any standard menorah. Many Jewish bookstores even sell kits of pre-measured oil in disposable cups.
Where to Light
To best publicize the miracle, the menorah is ideally lit outside the doorway of your house, on the left side when entering. (The mezuzah is on the right side; in this way, you are “surrounded by mitzvot.”) In Israel, many people light outside in special glass boxes built for a menorah.
If this is not practical, the menorah should be lit in a window facing the public thoroughfare.
Someone who lives on an upper floor should light a window. If for some reason the menorah cannot be lit by a window, it may be lit inside the house on a table; this at least fulfills the mitzvah of “publicizing the miracle” for the members of the household.
Since the mitzvah occurs at the actual moment of lighting, moving the menorah to a proper place after lighting does not fulfill the mitzvah.
When to Light
The preferable time to light the menorah is at nightfall. It is best to light in the presence of many people, which maximizes the mitzvah of “publicizing the miracle” and adds to the family atmosphere. The menorah can still be lit (with blessings) late into the night, as long as people are still awake.
The menorah should remain lit for at least 30 minutes after nightfall, during which time no use should be made of its light.
On Friday afternoon, the menorah should be lit 18 minutes before sundown. And since the menorah needs to burn for 30 minutes into the night, the candles used on Friday need to be bigger than the regular “colored candles” (which typically don’t burn longer than a half-hour).
How to Light
On the first night, place one candle at the far right, as you face the menorah. This applies whether the menorah is placed next to a doorway or by a window.
Another candle is placed for the Shamash (taller helper candle) which is used to light the others. It is not counted as one of the candles.
First light the Shamash, then recite the blessings and then use the Shamash to light the Chanukah candle.
On the second night, place two candles in the two far-right positions, and use the Shamash to light the left one first.
On the third night, place three candles in the three far-right positions ― and use the Shamash to light them in order, from left to right.
Follow this same procedure each night of Chanukah until all the lights are kindled and glowing brightly!
The first two blessings are said with the Shamash already lit, but immediately prior to lighting the Chanukah candles.
Baruch ata Ado-noi Elo-heinu melech ha-olam, Asher kid-shanu bi-mitzvo-sav, Vi-tzee-vanu li-had-leek ner shel Chanukah.
Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.
Baruch ata Ado-noi Elo-heinu melech ha-olam, Shi-asa nee-seem la-avo-seinu, Baya-meem ha-haim baz-man ha-zeh.
Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, who made miracles for our forefathers in those days of this season.
This blessing is said on the first night only.
Baruch ata Ado-noi Elo-heinu melech ha-olam, Sheh-he-che-yanu vi-kee-yimanu Vi-hee-gee-yanu laz-man ha-zeh.
Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
The following paragraph is said each night after the first light has been kindled:
Ha-nerot ha-lalu anach-nu mad-likin Al ha-nissim vi-al hanif-laot Al ha-tshu-ot vi-al ha-milchamot She-asita la’avo-teinu Ba-yamim ha-heim, ba-zman ha-zeh Al ye-dey kohan-echa haki-doshim.
Vi-chol shmonat ye-mey Chanukah Ha-nerot ha-lalu kodesh heim, Ve-ein lanu reshut li-heesh-tamesh ba-hem Ela leer-otam bilvad Kedai le-hodot u-li-hallel li-shimcha Al ni-secha vi-al niflo-techa vi-al yeshua-techa.
(3) Other Customs
After lighting the Chanukah menorah, families enjoy sitting in the glow, singing, and recalling the miracles of yesterday and today. The first song traditionally sung after lighting the candles is Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages).
A number of other customs have developed, including:
- eating “oily” foods like fried potato latkes (pancakes) andsufganiyot (jelly donuts), in commemoration of the miracle of the oil
- giving Chanukah gelt (coins) to children
- spinning the dreidel, a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side (sivivon in Hebrew)
What is the origin of the dreidel?
In times of persecution when Torah study was forbidden, Jewish children would learn anyway. When soldiers would investigate, the children would pull out a dreidel and pretend to be playing.
The letters on the dreidel are nun, gimmel, hey, shin ― the first letters of Nes Gadol Haya Sham – “A Great Miracle Happened There.” (In Israel, the last letter is a Pey ― “Here.”) One way to play dreidel is to see who can keep theirs spinning for the longest time. Or alternatively, to see how many dreidels you can get spinning simultaneously.
Another version of dreidel is where players use pennies, nuts, raisins, or chocolate coins as tokens or chips. Each player puts an equal share into the “pot.” The first player takes a turn spinning the dreidel. When the dreidel stops, the letter facing up determines:
- Nun—nothing happens; the next player spins the dreidel.
- Gimmel: The spinner takes the pot.
- Hey, take half the pot.
- Shin: add one to the pot
(Alternatively, you can play where everyone spins their own dreidel simultaneously. Anyone who gets Nun takes 2 from the pot; Gimmeltakes 1 from the pot; Hey puts 1 into the pot; Shin gives 1 to the person on his/her right.)
On Chanukah, we add “Al Ha’nisim”—an extra paragraph that describes the Chanukah miracle—to the Amidah prayer and also to the Grace After Meals.
About the Author
Rabbi Shraga Simmons spent his childhood trekking through snow in Buffalo, New York. He holds a degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.