An Introduction to Hanukkah

Prepared by Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
Executive Vice President
Board of Rabbis of Southern California




The Hebrew word Hanukkah means "dedication." The roots of this name, and the Hanukkah holiday, come from the second century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). Chafing under foreign domination, a band of Jews led by Mattathias took to the hills of Judea in open revolt against the Seleucid regime of Antiochus IV.

Mattathias' son Judah took charge of the rebellion after his father's death. He was given the nickname "the Maccabee" ("the hammer"). Antiochus sent thousands of well-trained and well-armed troops to the land of Israel to crush the rebellion. The Maccabees responded with a brilliant campaign of guerilla warfare, and succeeded in driving the foreigners from their land.

Jewish fighters entered Jerusalem in December, 164 B.C.E. They found the sacred Temple in shambles, defiled and desecrated by foreign soldiers. They cleansed the Temple and re-dedicated it on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. They observed a feast of dedication for eight days in honor of their historic victory.

The contemporary observance of Hanukkah features the lighting of a hanukkiyah, a special Hanukkah menorah with eight branches and a ninth holder for the shamash, or helper candle. Popular legend connects this ritual with the tale of the cruse of pure oil that miraculously burned for eight days rather than one.

On the first night of Hanukkah, two candles are placed in the menorah. One serves as the shamash to be used for lighting the other candle. On each successive night, another candle is added to the menorah. By the time we reach the last night of Hanukkah, eight candles are glowing brightly in celebration of this beautiful festival.

Other familiar Hanukkah customs include spinning the draydal (a special top with Hebrew letters on the sides), eating potato latkes (pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and giving gifts of gelt (coins) to children.

In the broad sweep of Jewish tradition, Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday. It is not a yom tov, a holy day, akin to Rosh Hashanah or Passover. Hanukkah, like Purim, is a post-Biblical holiday, a happy, fun-filled celebration for the young and the young-at-heart.

The traditional greeting Jews extend to one another during this holiday is hag orim same'ah. Happy Feast of Lights! Happy Hanukkah!




An Adult View of Hanukkah

by Rabbi Diamond

Most of us are familiar with the basic elements of the Hanukkah story: Antiochus' cruel oppression, the Macccabees' stunning victory, the miracle of the cruse of oil. However, the Hanukkah saga is far more complex and intriguing that the tale we learned years ago in Hebrew School.

Did you know that....

  • Scholars are perplexed by Antiochus' persecution of the Jews, very unorthodox behavior for a pagan ruler in the ancient world. Many historians argue that Antiochus intervened in what was essentially a civil war pitting Jew against Jew. While many Jews were sympathetic to the Hellenization of Jewish life, others bitterly opposed assimilating Greek customs and mores. Nationalists teamed up with religious pietists (hasidim) to fight the pro-Hellenizing forces. Antiochus stepped in to bolster his allies in the land of Israel, and the result was a wave of oppression that led to full-fledged war.

  • The Book of Second Maccabees, one of the earliest sources on the origins of Hanukkah, connects the eight days of the festival with the eight-day observance of Sukkot. According to the text, the first Hanukkah in 164 B.C.E. was celebrated as a delayed Sukkot, since the Maccabees had been unable to observe the holiday properly while they were fighting in the hills. That first Hanukkah observance featured wands wreathed with leaves, branches and palm leaves.

  • The famous tale of the miracle of the cruse of oil first appears in the Talmud, some 400 years after the events of Hanukkah took place. Some scholars suggest that the miracle story was one way the rabbinic sages sought to infuse spirituality into a secular, nationalistic holiday.

  • The descendants of the Maccabees, known as the Hasmoneans, were for the most part corrupt, decadent, anti-religious rulers. The rabbinic sages opposed a holiday celebrating the military victory that first brought the Hasmonean dynasty into power. The common people, however, loved this festival of lights held in the dark, foreboding days of winter. Faced with overwhelming popular support of Hanukkah, the rabbis wisely followed the adage: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." They stressed God's role in the Hanukkah story, emphasized the miracle of the oil, and ordained a variety of religious rituals for the celebration of Hanukkah.

However you interpret the Hanukkah story, this festival has become one of our most colorful and enjoyable holidays.

Happy Hanukkah!