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What Is Hanukkah?

What Is Hanukkah?

All the info you need to know about Chanukah

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Photo credits: Flash90
Photo credits: Flash90

Chanukah is the Jewish eight-day, wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers and fried foods.

The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication,” and is thus named because it celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple (as you’ll read below). Also spelled Hanukkah (or variations of that spelling), the Hebrew word is actually pronounced with a guttural, “kh” sound, kha-nu-kah, not tcha-new-kah.

What Chanukah Commemorates

Artist Dominic Alves captured this image of a snowy Chanukah in Brighton, UK.
Artist Dominic Alves captured this image of a snowy Chanukah in Brighton, UK.

In the second century BCE, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who tried to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of mitzvah observance and belief in G‑d. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of G‑d.

When they sought to light the Temple's Menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum), they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, they lit the menorah and the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.

To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah.

Read the full story of Chanukah.

How Chanukah Is Observed

At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah lighting. The menorah holds nine flames, one of which is the shamash (“attendant”), which is used to kindle the other eight lights. On the first night, we light just one flame. On the second night, an additional flame is lit. By the eighth night of Chanukah, all eight lights are kindled.

Special blessings are recited, often to a traditional melody, before the menorah is lit, and traditional songs are sung afterward.

A menorah is lit in every household (or even by each individual within the household) and placed in a doorway or window. The menorah is also lit in synagogues and other public places. In recent years, thousands of jumbo menorahs have cropped up in front of city halls and legislative buildings, and in malls and parks all over the world.

We recite the special Hallel prayer daily, and add V’Al HaNissim in our daily prayers and in the Grace After Meals, to offer praise and thanksgiving to G‑d for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few ... the wicked into the hands of the righteous.”

Read the full menorah-lighting guide.

Learn what to expect at a public menorah lighting.

When Is Chanukah?

Chanukah begins on the eve of Kislev 25 and continues for eight days. On the civil calendar, it generally coincides with the month of December.

View (and print) a Chanukah calendar.

Chanukah Foods

Photo credit: Miriam Szokovski
Photo credit: Miriam Szokovski

Since the Chanukah miracle involved oil, it is customary to eat foods fried in oil. The Eastern-European classic is the potato latke (pancake) garnished with applesauce or sour cream, and the reigning Israeli favorite is the jelly-filled sufganya (doughnut).

Find the perfect Chanukah recipe.

Dreidel: the Chanukah Game

On Chanukah, it is customary to play with a “dreidel” (a four-sided spinning top bearing the Hebrew letters, nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for nes gadol hayah sham, “a great miracle happened there”). The game is usually played for a pot of coins, nuts, or other stuff, which is won or lost based on which letter the dreidel lands when it is spun.

Learn how to pay dreidel.

Chanukah Gelt

In today’s consumer-driven society, people tend to place great importance on giving Chanukah gifts. However, the tradition is actually to give Chanukah gelt, gifts of money, to children. In addition to rewarding positive behavior and devotion to Torah study, the cash gifts give the children the opportunity to give tzedakah (charity). This has also spawned the phenomenon of foil-covered “chocolate gelt.”

Why we give gelt.

What It Means For You

Noting that one should spend time in close proximity to the Chanukah lights, the Previous Rebbe would say, “We must listen carefully to what the candles are saying.” So what are the flickering flames telling us? Here are some messages:

a. Never be afraid to stand up for what’s right. Judah Maccabee and his band faced daunting odds, but that didn’t stop them. With a prayer on their lips and faith in their heart, they entered the battle of their lives—and won. We can do the same.

b. Always increase in matters of goodness and Torah-observance. Sure, a single flame was good enough for yesterday, but today needs to be even better.

c. A little light goes a long way. The Chanukah candles are lit when dusk is falling. Perched in the doorway, they serve as a beacon for the darkening streets. No matter how dark it is outside, a candle of G‑dly goodness can transform the darkness itself into light.

d. Take it to the streets. Chanukah is unique in that its primary mitzvah is observed in public. It’s not enough to be a Jew at heart, or even at home. Chanukah teaches us to shine outwards into our surroundings with the G‑dly glow of mitzvahs.

e. Don't be ashamed to perform mitzvahs, even if you will feel different. Rather, be like a menorah, proudly proclaiming its radiant uniqueness for all to see.

Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg of Afula, Israel, the father of Rivkah Holtzberg, lights a 25-foot steel menorah during Chanukah 2008 in front of the Gateway of India in Mumbai just weeks after his daughter and son-in-law, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, were killed in a terrorist attack. Gavriel Holtzberg would light that menorah each year. (Photo by Serge Attal/Flash90)
Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg of Afula, Israel, the father of Rivkah Holtzberg, lights a 25-foot steel menorah during Chanukah 2008 in front of the Gateway of India in Mumbai just weeks after his daughter and son-in-law, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, were killed in a terrorist attack. Gavriel Holtzberg would light that menorah each year. (Photo by Serge Attal/Flash90)

Other important Chanukah links:

Chanukah stories to tug at your heartstrings
Chanukah videos and songs
Chanukah Q&A
Chanukah essays and more

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llama oligist llama bahama February 28, 2017

very inspiring thanks ;) Reply

Jarred L Scott Slidell December 31, 2016

Shalom Happy Chanukah Reply

Phil Dallas, TX December 31, 2016

I don't know how many years ago the 2nd century BCE was. Can anyone explain it to me? Just how many years ago was it?
Thanks! Reply

Cynthia Denver December 29, 2016

Why is the letter "o" removed from the words God and Godly in this article? Reply

Christina China December 28, 2016

I learned a lot from this website, thank all of you. Reply

Yvonne San Antonio December 27, 2016

Thank you for the information. I am 45 and found out 5 years ago I am Jewish. I am trying to learn my culture and teach my children. Reply

Jacob Australia December 22, 2016

Thank you for the teachings. Only discovered at 14, I was jewish. Still learning at 27 (will always be learning.) My wife and I appreicate your work in educating and teaching. Thank you all. Reply

Anonymous December 22, 2016

For everyone asking: BCE stands for Before Common Era and is the standard that most people use. Also Jewish people don't believe Jesus was G-d, so they probably wouldn't refer to their eras using him as a baseline, as BC stands for Before Christ.
They say G-d in the article because Jewish people do not say (or type) His name. Reply

Sarah K. France December 20, 2016

Hallo again, and also why the Chanukah Menorah with 8+1 candles has the Shamash extra while in the Menorah with 7 candles they are all equal hight? If related to the tree of life, it means the 9th candle of the Chanukah Menorah is out of business and does not belong to the picture then why to have it? I wonder why should Daat be taken out of counting in the 7 candles? Why it is " behind " the tree ? Thanks and Happy Chanukah ! Reply

Anu Philippines December 18, 2016

Advance happy chanukha, Israel!
We are with you, from Davao City, Philippines. Reply

E Kevin Stall Nevada December 16, 2016

Why can't you say BC instead of BCE and why not spell out the Word God? Reply

Heather Anne Lambert-MacKay AURORA December 16, 2016

I have a Jewish friend and wanted to understand what Chanukah was about, its significance. I also wanted to give her something meaningful for Chanukah. This article was very helpful. Thank you Reply

charmaine coral springs FL December 13, 2016

My daughter attends a Jewish daycare. This is helpful for me to be respectful and observe in our home as well which makes her very happy. Reply

Ed zeidman Agora Hills,Ca December 13, 2016

There is two many different stories being told and it just makes it confusing. I find the reading very interesting but confusing. Reply

Max Jones Knoxville December 12, 2016

Is the spelling of God in your article, spelled G-d? Does it have religious reasons or are you being PC? Thanks for the explanation, very well done I might add, It really helps me understand my friends celebration. Reply

Samwise Eugene December 5, 2016

I just moved and my new neighbors are Jewish, so this has been very helpful. I now know when but what Hanukkah is. Way cool! Reply

Zach Melbourne February 17, 2016

Helped me lots, would definitely recommend 10/10 :) Reply

Michele USA December 12, 2015

Thanks for the overview, it was very insightful. Reply

JElaine Washington December 10, 2015

what is chanukah? I thought it was hanukkah? Reply

stan MONTREAL December 8, 2015

Happy Hanukkah to everyone celebrating around the world! Reply

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