What does the holiday of Chanukah celebrate?
Chanukah celebrates two miracles:
a) The 2nd century BCE victory of a small, greatly outnumbered and out-armed army of Jews, known as the “Maccabees,” over the mighty Greek army that occupied the Holy Land. The rebellion was in response to the Greek attempt to force a Hellenistic G‑dless lifestyle on the Jewish inhabitants of Israel.
b) The kindling of a seven-branched Menorah (candelabra) was an important component of the daily service in the Holy Temple. When the Maccabees liberated the Temple from the hands of the Greek invaders, they found only a small cruse of pure and undefiled olive oil fit for fueling the Menorah. The problem was, it was sufficient to light the Menorah only for one day, and it would take eight days to produce new pure oil. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days and nights.
Click here for more on the story of Chanukah.
How is it spelled, Chanukah or Hanukkah?
In the Hebrew, Chanukah is pronounced with the letter chet. The chet’s “ch” sound is not enunciated like the “ch” in child; rather it’s a guttural, throaty sound—like the “ch” in Johann Bach—which does not have an English equivalent. The letter “H” is the closest, but it’s not really it. So while some people spell and pronounce it “Chanukah” and others settle for “Hanukkah,” they really are one and the same.
What does the word Chanukah mean?
Chanukah means “dedication” or “induction.” Following their victory over the Greeks, the Maccabees rededicated the Holy Temple and its altar, which had been desecrated and defiled by the pagan invaders.
The word Chanukah can also be divided into two: Chanu—they rested, and Kah—which has the numerical value of 25. On the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev the Maccabees rested from their battle, and triumphantly marched into the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, ready to rededicate it.
Why does the date of Chanukah seem to change each year?
Chanukah begins on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Kislev. The Jewish calendar is primarily based on the lunar cycle, and its dates fluctuate with respect to other calendar systems. Thus the first day of Chanukah can fall anywhere between November 28th and December 26th.
Click here for an overview of the workings of the Jewish calendar.
To convert any secular date into its corresponding Jewish date, see our Calendar Converter.
Click here for a listing of Chanukah’s corresponding secular dates for the upcoming years.
A Jewish calendar is an important tool for every Jewish home. A wide selection of Jewish calendars should be available at your local Judaica store.
How is Chanukah celebrated?
On each of the eight days of Chanukah, we light the menorah, a nine-branched candelabra, after nightfall (aside for Friday afternoon, when the candles are lit shortly before sunset). On the first night we kindle one light plus the shamash (attendant candle), on the second night we kindle two lights plus the shamash, and so we continue until the eighth night when we kindle all eight lights plus the shamash. The menorah lights can be either candles, or oil and wicks.
It is traditional to eat foods fried in oil on Chanukah, to commemorate the miracle of Chanukah which occurred with oil. It is also customary to eat dairy foods during the holiday.
It is customary on Chanukah to give money gifts to children, and to play dreidel games.
It is also customary to give an increased amount of charity each day of Chanukah.
There are also certain passages we add to the daily prayers and Grace After Meals.
Click here to read more about these Chanukah customs and observances.
Is Chanukah a major Jewish holiday?
That depends on your definition of “major.”
Many define major Jewish holidays as those that feature traditional holiday meals, kiddush, holiday candle-lighting, etc., and when work is forbidden. Only biblical holidays fit this criteria, and Chanukah was instituted some two centuries after the Bible was completed and canonized.
Nevertheless, though Chanukah is of rabbinic origin, it is traditionally celebrated in a “major” and very public fashion. The requirement to position the Chanukah menorah at the door or window symbolizes our desire to give the Chanukah miracle a “high profile.”
Is the public celebration of Chanukah a reaction to the holiday of a different faith—to ensure that Jews don’t feel second-class?
The Passover Seder is carried out in the privacy of one’s home. On Rosh Hashanah we go to the synagogue to hear the sound of the shofar. But there’s only one holiday whose primary mitzvah is PR-oriented, whose message is meant to be advertised and broadcasted, and that is Chanukah.
Originally, the sages who established Chanukah instituted that the menorah be lit at the entranceway to one’s home. The concept of pirsumei nissa, “the publicizing of the miracle,” is, and always was, part and parcel of Chanukah.
Many of the laws associated with the menorah reflect this central theme of Chanukah. For example, the Talmud (Shabbat 23b) explains that one who only has sufficient funds for either Chanukah candles or wine for kiddush should purchase the candles, and make do with a wine-less kiddush. Why? “The Chanukah lights are more important, because of pirsumei nissa.”
In the Diaspora, the practice of publicizing the miracle via lighting the menorah in full view of public thoroughfares was discontinued due to the persecutions that such displays could have potentially engendered. In Jerusalem, though, to this very day menorahs are lit in plastic or glass casings outside the homes.
Now that by the grace of G‑d the vast majority of Jews live in lands that pride themselves on their commitment to religious freedom and tolerance, it is certainly appropriate to restore the holiday message that had been silenced for so long.
And there certainly has never been a time when the message of the Chanukah lights has been more needed by societies that so thirst for meaning and spirituality.
See also Public Menorahs.
What are some of the traditional Chanukah foods?
Because of the central role that oil played in the Chanukah miracle, it is customary to serve foods fried in oil. The traditional foods vary according to country of origin:
Jews of Eastern European (or Ashkenazi) origin eat latkes, fried potato pancakes.
Sephardic Jews eat different varieties of deep-fried doughnuts. Greek Jews call them loukomades; Persian Jews refer to them as zelebi, while in Israel jelly doughnuts are wildly popular and known as sufganiot.
It is also customary to eat dairy foods on Chanukah, in commemoration of the bravery of Yehudit, who used cheese to defeat the Greek general Holofernes. Click here to read the story of this brave woman.
And one more custom . . .
It is customary amongst Sephardic residents of Jerusalem to arrange communal meals during the eight days of Chanukah. Friends who quarreled during the year traditionally reconcile at these meals.
Where does the name “Maccabee” come from?
The name Maccabee may come from the Hebrew word for hammer, or for hitting. It is also an acrostic for Mi Kamocha Ba-Elim Hashem! (Who is like You among the mighty, O G‑d!)
Is it mandatory to give gifts on Chanukah?
The original custom of giving gifts is actually that of giving “Chanukah gelt” or Chanukah money. (There is no specific custom in terms of giving every day; some give every night, some give on the fourth and/or fifth night—it is really up to each individual.)
There are a few reasons for this custom. The Code of Jewish Law explains that the menorah’s candles may only be viewed to recall the miracle and not for any other purpose. The Code’s author, Rabbi Yosef Caro, includes counting money as an example of what the menorah lights cannot be used for. Giving out Chanukah money was a way to remember this rule.
The Talmud refers to money on Chanukah when it cautions us to light at the very least one candle, per household, per night on Chanukah—even if we must go door-to-door for candle funds. The widespread custom of giving Chanukah gelt enabled the poor to get the candle money they needed without feeling great embarrassment.
For more reasons for the custom to give Chanukah gelt, see Why the Gelt?
What does “Dreidel” mean?
Dreidel is a Yiddish word which comes from the word drei, which means to turn, or spin. The dreidel is a specially-designed spinning top used for Chanukah games.
What is a Dreidel?
Dreidel is Yiddish for a spinning top. A dreidel is a pointed, four-sided top which can be made to spin on its pointed base. Dreidels are normally made of plastic or wood, though there are silver or glass “designer dreidels” available on the market, usually intended for display purposes. It is customary to play dreidel games on the holiday of Chanukah.
There is a Hebrew letter embossed or printed on each of the dreidel’s four sides. These four letters form the acronym of the phrase Nes gadol hayah sham, “A great miracle happened there”—a reference to the Chanukah miracle that transpired in the Land of Israel.
The dreidel, known in Hebrew as a sevivon, dates back to the time of the Syrian-Greek rule over the Holy Land—which set off the Maccabean revolt that culminated in the Chanukah miracle. Learning Torah was outlawed by the enemy, a “crime” punishable by death. The Jewish children resorted to hiding in caves in order to study. If a Greek patrol would approach, the children would pull out their tops and pretend to be playing a game.
By playing dreidel during Chanukah we are reminded of the courage of those brave children.
See our Dreidel Wizard for traditional dreidel game rules.
Is there any significance to the blue and white Chanukah candles?
None whatsoever. Chanukah candles can be any color, shape or size (provided that they burn for the minimum half-hour, or one and a half hours on Friday night).
The colored candles are apparently born of the desire to add an aesthetic touch to the holiday, and perhaps to make it more appealing to the children.
And certain manufacturers decided to give Chanukah a unique color theme, too. The blue and white of the Israeli flag appealed to them, and thus the reason for the proliferation of blue and white Chanukah candles.
In what order do we light the candles?
On the first night of Chanukah, set one candle to the far right of the menorah. On the following night add a second light to the left of the first one, and then add one light each night of Chanukah—moving from right to left.
Each night, light the newest (leftmost) candle first, and continue lighting from left to right. In other words, we add lights to the menorah from right to left, and we light from left to right.
What is the ninth candle for?
The ninth candle is called the shamash or “attendant” candle. It is used to light the other ones.
Click here for more about the shamash.
For more on the deeper significance of the shamash, see The Lamplighter.
Is it okay to use an electric menorah?
Electric menorahs are great for display purposes, and are a wonderful medium for publicizing the Chanukah miracle. But the Chanukah lights used to fulfill the mitzvah should be real flames fueled by wax or oil—like the flames in the Holy Temple.
Consult with your rabbi if you find yourself under extenuating circumstances that do not allow for lighting a candle or oil menorah.