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13 Hanukkah Facts Every Jew Should Know

13 Hanukkah Facts Every Jew Should Know

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1. Eight Nights=Miracle Lights

The ceremony, free of charge and open to all, draws thousands of attendees each year to the Ellipse in front of the White House lawn. (Photo: Baruch Ezagui)
The ceremony, free of charge and open to all, draws thousands of attendees each year to the Ellipse in front of the White House lawn. (Photo: Baruch Ezagui)

Why is Chanukah (Hanukkah) eight nights long? The Talmud asks and answers:

The sages taught: On the 25th of Kislev, the days of Chanukah are eight. One may not eulogize on them, and one may not fast on them. This is because when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. And when the Chashmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that remained with the seal of the High Priest. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the candelabrum from it for eight days. The next year, the sages instituted those days and made them holidays with the recitation of Hallel and prayers of thanksgiving.1

But there’s more. Seven represents all that is found within this world. There are seven days of the week, seven classical planets and seven musical notes. In fact, the world itself was created in seven days.

Then there is the number eight, which represents that which is above, that which does not fit into the neat slots that hold the bits and pieces of our lives. The number eight evokes the transcendent and the G‑dly. Eight is the number of miracles.

2. Light After Dark

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.

The Chanukah candles must burn after night falls, since their purpose is to bring light into darkness. But they need to be lit early enough that someone will be around to see them. The lights need to be seen so they can serve their function of reminding others of the great miracle G‑d wrought.

Read more about the night-illuminating Chanukah lights.

3. The Silent Holiday

Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday not mentioned in the 24 books of the Bible. That’s because the canon was sealed by the Men of the Great Assembly, who flourished two centuries before the Chanukah miracle. Nor does it have a tractate in the Talmud that discusses its observances. Instead, it gets a by-the-way mention in Tractate Shabbat. In the context of discussing Shabbat candles, the Chanukah candles (and by extension, the Chanukah holiday) get their time in the Talmudic sun.

Read: Why No Tractate Chanukah?

4. Before There Were Potatoes There Was ... Cheese!

Today, there is a widespread custom to enjoy potato latkes on Chanukah,since the oil they are fried in reminds us of the miracle of the flames on the Temple menorah burning for eight days. But there is an older custom to eat cheese pancakes on Chanukah, which is reminiscent of the dairy (and intoxicating) meal that the brave Judith fed the Greek general before she decapitated him in his sleep, saving her village. Apparently cheese latkes morphed into potato latkes (potatoes were unknown in the Old World until the late 16th century), and a new custom was born.

Read more on the history of potato latkes vs. cheese latkes.

5. You Light a Hillel Menorah

A Chanukah menorah on the eighth night, using oil.
A Chanukah menorah on the eighth night, using oil.

In the days of the Talmud, there were two major academies of learning: Hillel and Shammai. The House of Hillel taught that every night of Chanukah we add another candle—as we do today. The House of Shammai, however, maintained that we begin with eight lights on the first night and light one less flame every night, ending Chanukah with a single flame.2 Tempted to try the Shammai template? The time to do that is yet to come. Tradition tells us that when Moshiach comes, we will follow the rulings of the House of Shammai. But until then, there is a beautiful lesson to be learned from the Hillel model. Add more light every night. Every little bit of lights add up to create something brilliant.

Read more about this historic dispute here.

6. Syrians, Greeks, Hellenists or Yevanim?

We sometimes hear of Greeks, Syrians or even Hellenists in the Chanukah story. So who exactly were the interlopers who were expelled by the Maccabees? All of the above! After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was broken up: the Seleucid Greek Empire was based in Syria, and the Ptolemaic Empire had its base in Alexandria, Egypt. The soldiers stationed in Judea belonged to the Syrian Greeks. And who are the Hellenists and the Yevanim? The very same people: Hella is the Greek word for Greece, and Yavan is how we say it in Hebrew.

(Now, just to make things a bit more confusing, there were also the Hellenized Jews, or “Mityavnim” in Hebrew, who sided with the Greeks/Yevanim/Hellenists/Syrians/Seleucids and posed an even greater threat to the survival of traditional Jewish life.)

Read an insight from the Rebbe into Yavan, the Hebrew name for Greece.

7. Menorahs Everywhere

On the first Chanukah, candles were lit all over the courtyard of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This brought the Chanukah light from the inner sanctum of the Temple, the holiest spot on earth, out into the open. As Jews continue to observe Chanukah all over the globe, the ripples of holiness continue to widen and expand.

8. Lots of Choices

Most Jewish holidays begin on only four out of seven days of the week. For example, the first day of Rosh Hashanah can be Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Shabbat—never Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. However since the month preceding Chanukah (Cheshvan) can have 29 or 30 days, Chanukah can actually begin on any day of the week besides Tuesday.

9. Were the Maccabees Really So Great?

Any kid who attends Chabad preschool can tell you that the heroes of the Chanukah story are the Maccabees, the clan who led the brave insurgency against the Greeks invaders. But it was not all good. Judah Maccabee and his family were Kohanim, members of the priestly tribe chosen by G‑d to minister in the Holy Temple. Judah Maccabee’s successors took the kingship for themselves, something that rightfully belonged to the descendants of King David from the Tribe of Judah. Indeed, it did not take long until the monarchy of Judea was dragged down into a series of unending power grabs and bloody intrigue, with king after king trying to imitate the very same Greeks their ancestors had ousted from the land.

10. Chanukah in the USSR

Avraham Genin, a leading figure in the network of underground Jewish institutions run by Chabad in the USSR (photo: Nathan Brusovani (Bar), www.brusovani.com)
Avraham Genin, a leading figure in the network of underground Jewish institutions run by Chabad in the USSR (photo: Nathan Brusovani (Bar), www.brusovani.com)

For most of his life, Avraham Genin lit the menorah in the privacy of his own home, or in the synagogue. A former soldier in the Red Army, he lost his foot to a German bomb. But that didn’t prevent him from walking to synagogue every week—an effort that took him an hour and a half. A stalwart chassid who refused to bow to Stalin and his minions, he served bravely as a mohel and a teacher of Torah, a beacon of light in a G‑dless communist era.

But then the unthinkable happened. By Chanukah of 1991, cracks had formed in the Iron Curtain and, in the presence of approximately 6,000 Jewish people, Avraham Genin kindled a giant menorah inside the Kremlin Palace of Congresses. (It was the second year that a large public menorah had been lit in the USSR; the previous year, a menorah had been placed near Russia’s White House.)

Public Chanukah menorah lightings have been a staple of Jewish Russian life ever since.

11. Chanukah in Space

In December of 1993, Space Shuttle Endeavour was sent into space to service the Hubble Space Telescope. One of the astronauts to bravely perform a spacewalk to repair the telescope was Jeffrey Hoffman.

Knowing that he would be stuck in space over Chanukah, Hoffman made sure to bring along a dreidel and a traveling menorah so that he’d be able to celebrate (because of lack of gravity and safety concerns, there was no way to light candles).

Then, via live satellite communication, he showed his Chanukah supplies, gave his dreidel a twirl in the air, and wished Jews everywhere a happy Chanukah

12. Is Your Menorah in the Doorway or at a Window?

The most common custom (outside of Israel) is to light the menorah at a window. In Mishnaic times, however, the menorah would be placed outside, on the left side of the door leading in from the street.

This led to a unique law. Normally if a person placed a candle in the street, and a straw-bearing donkey brushed by too close, the owner of the candle would be responsible for the ensuing conflagration. On Chanukah, however, he would be exempt because he was doing a mitzvah.

Why was the menorah placed to the left of the door? Because the mezuzah is placed on the right side. With the mezuzah on one side and the menorah on the other, you are literally surrounded by holiness.

The harsh realities of the diaspora, both sociopolitical and meteorological, forced the menorah to an indoor doorway, and some communities developed the custom to put it on the windowsill instead. Even today, many people (including Chabad) prefer to light in a doorway, surrounding ourselves with the mitzvahs of mezuzah and the menorah, just as in ancient times.

Read more on why Chabad prefers the doorway for the menorah.

13. How Chanukah Went Public in Three Years

The purpose of the menorah is to spread awareness to as many people as possible. This is why the menorah is also lit in the synagogue every night. But in recent years, the mitzvah of menorah has rippled out even further.

Rabbi Moshe Hecht with students at the New Haven Hebrew Day School in Connecticut, 1987.
Rabbi Moshe Hecht with students at the New Haven Hebrew Day School in Connecticut, 1987.

During Chanukah of 1973, some Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivah students were planning to go to Manhattan to distribute menorahs. They figured that if they could put a giant menorah on top of a car, many more people would notice them and take the menorahs they were distributing. Using wooden scraps and cinder blocks, they manage to make a large menorah and tie it down to the roof of a station wagon. The menorah turned out to be a success.

By 1974, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov had the unusual, perhaps wild, idea of lighting a menorah right in front of Independence Hall, which houses the Liberty Bell, the icon of American freedom.

In 1975, Chabad Rabbi Chaim Drizin in San Francisco made arrangements to light an oversized wooden menorah in the city’s Union Square. Bill Graham—a child survivor of the Holocaust and a well-known music promoter—donated funds for the construction of the 22-foot-tall mahogany menorah. To this day, it's called the Bill Graham menorah. (Photo: www.billgrahammenorah.org)
In 1975, Chabad Rabbi Chaim Drizin in San Francisco made arrangements to light an oversized wooden menorah in the city’s Union Square. Bill Graham—a child survivor of the Holocaust and a well-known music promoter—donated funds for the construction of the 22-foot-tall mahogany menorah. To this day, it's called the Bill Graham menorah. (Photo: www.billgrahammenorah.org)

In 1975, on the opposite U.S. coast, Rabbi Chaim Drizin in San Francisco had made arrangements to light an oversized wooden menorah in the city’s Union Square. Bill Graham—a child survivor of the Holocaust and a well-known music promoter—donated a 22–foot-tall mahogany menorah, and the tradition grew into its current form.

In 2016, Chabad-Lubavitch set up more than 15,000 large public menorahs. Public lightings and Chanukah events were held in more than 90 countries around the world. Additionally, 5,000 menorah-topped vehicles roamed the roads, creating holiday awareness in cities, towns and rural areas around the world.

Read more on the history of public Chanukah celebrations.

Footnotes
1.
Shabbat 21b, quoting Megillat Taanit.
2.
Shabbat 21b.
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Sandra Marietta December 12, 2017

Chanukah Chanukah:
Why is it ignored that this year Chanukah is said to be started on Tuesday? Reply

Roy Virginia December 14, 2017
in response to Sandra:

The first 'day' of Chanukah is actually Wednesday. It does start on Tuesday night, as you note, but all Jewish holidays begin after sunset the evening before. A Jewish 'day' (at least for purposes of bounding a holiday -- including Shabbat) runs from evening to evening. Reply

Robert J Kolker MONROE TOWNSHIP December 10, 2017

another good reason to light the candles at night and let the light shine forth to the world --- it proclaims the miracle. If something wonderful happens, don't be bashful about letting the world know about it. Reply

Anonymous December 10, 2017

8 - Chanukah is on Tuesday this year. Reply

Sara December 12, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

No it begins after sundown on Tuesday (today) so is technically Wednesday.... Reply

Hugh David Pattison Bala December 8, 2017

I have. one of those hats, I didn't know it was Jewish, cool so I'll be wearing that now, Yarushaleim. Reply

Emese Oseni Scarborough December 10, 2017
in response to Hugh David Pattison:

Wow, I like to hear that. Wear it in good health. Happy Chanukah!!! Reply

Sydney December 7, 2017

This is so helpful! Thank you Reply

Ric Sydney December 7, 2017

Wow! I love Jewish history and traditions. As a non-Jew I think you guys are awesome!

Thank you for the article

I so want to go to a Synagogue and see this for myself :-)

What a fantastic tradition Reply

Emese Oseni Scarborough December 10, 2017
in response to Ric:

Thank you Ric. I'm happy to hear that. May G-d bless you. Chanukah starts on the evening of December 12th. Reply

Jay Simkin Nashua, NH December 7, 2017

The victory over the Syria-based Greeks was the last Jewish military victory until 1948, For over 2,000 years, Jews rarely resorted to military force, and when we did so, we did not prevail.

This makes the more remarkable, Jews' fight against the Nazi murderers in Warsaw (Pesach, 1943). That fight - dismissively known as the "Warsaw Ghetto Uprising" - was truly an epochal event. It was the first time since Bar Kochba (135 C.E.) that Jews joined battle. Instead of being known as an "Uprising", the 1943 event should be known as the "First Battle of Warsaw".

We would not have merited the 1948 victory - also against overwhelming odds - but for the Jews who fought at Warsaw in 1943.

On Erev Pesach, everyone should light a Yahrzeit candle, to commemorate those, who fell in battle in 1943.

The 1948 victory was rooted in the merit of those, who at Warsaw fought the Nazi murderers. Reply

Neil Chase Bridgeport, CT December 7, 2017
in response to Jay Simkin:

Another sign that Moshiach had indeed arrived? Reply

Jay E. Simkin Nashua, NH December 8, 2017
in response to Neil Chase:

Add a comment...To Neil Chase. A sign that being passive in the face of evil was always wrong.

Eight-tenths of Jews did not leave Egypt (Rashi to Sh'mos 13:18). Jews were so impressed by Egyptian technology, that they forgot what it was like to be free, and so lacked a thirst for freedom. Most Jews in Egypt accepted abuse by Egyptians as "normal".

Fast forward. Many Jews fled Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They understand that in Europe, they would always be abused. They knew that was not normal. Other Jews - with a ruach acheres - stayed in Europe.

The Jews in Warsaw belatedly grasped that they should not have stayed in Europe: some may have wanted to leave, but delayed. They atoned for their failure by fighting the Nazis. That effort expressed their belief that they could not submit quietly to being murdered.

In their merit, the A-mighty, Blessed by He, enabled us to redeem ourselves and to defeat those, who planned to murder us in 1948. Reply

Jeannettte New Zealand December 7, 2017

On Chanukah I light the candles of the Menorah which once belonged to my grandfather who never came back from Auschwitz. It is very special for me and my family Reply

Emese Oseni Scarborough December 10, 2017
in response to Jeannettte :

May your grandfather's memory be a blessing. My grandfather returned from a concentration camp weighing only 80 lbs. I thank G-d every day that I knew him and spent 9 years of my life growing up with him in Eastern Europe. I came to Canada 52 years ago and wear my beautiful Star of David around my neck every day. I recently visited Egypt - for business and never removed my necklace. I am proud of who I am and will never allow anyone to intimidate me. I raised my daughter to be proud of our heritage and also now tell my stories to my grandchildren. Happy Chanukah Jeannette and G-d bless you and your entire family. Reply

Nuno Alexandre Freire da Silva Portimão December 6, 2017

I'm Portuguese and live in south Portugal and i discovered recently i have quite significant middle east and sephardic roots, so i'll light the hannukiah this year for the first time. Happy Hannukah! Reply

Emese Oseni Scarborough December 10, 2017
in response to Nuno Alexandre Freire da Silva:

I'm so happy to hear this Nuno. It's a beautiful time of year, enjoy your first Chanukah. May G-d bless you and your family. You will enjoy this every year. Reply

Emese Oseni Scarborough December 6, 2017

My fav time of the year. I am waiting anxiously Kislev 24 and jelly donuts!!!! Reply

Elionora Miami December 5, 2017

Very nice.. Reply

jules Leesburg, fl December 5, 2017

A menorah should always be seen by the public when lit . Reply

William Borici December 5, 2017

These are facts the Non-Jew, the Noahide, should also know. Ultimately Chanukah celebrates the miraculous extermination of pagan intents to promote idolatry and blasphemy in the Holy Land. Thus, there is a universal message to be celebrated. Hag Chanukah Sameach! Reply

Patricia Florida December 6, 2017
in response to William Borici:

William, thank you for a wonderful note. I am not Jewish, so all I am learning about your religion is as an adult. I've been receiving the Chabad.org newsletter for about two years now, and have grown in my love and respect for my Jewish friends. Thank you for helping me learn even more. Reply

Joseph Vinegar December 3, 2017

Nice article, accurate and to-the-point. I should warn you guys, though, that you should attempt to refrain from using clickbait. The internet does not necessarily respect clickbait-y titles. Reply

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