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Hanukkah, (variously spelled Chanukah, Hannukah etc.) pronounced 'hah noo kah, (the first "H" is sounded way back in your throat like "X" in Spanish) is a holiday of national liberation. It is also the Jewish Feast of Lights or Feast of Dedication. The Hebrew word hanukkah means dedication or inauguration. Hanukkah begins on the eve of the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev (usually in December) and lasts eight days.

Hanukkah is one of the quintessentially Zionist holidays. It is a holiday of freedom, celebrating the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians. It reaffirms the centrality of Israel and of Jerusalem in Jewish cultural life  Without love of Israel and Jewish national existence, Hanukkah has no real meaning.  Hanukah was was suppressed by the successors of the Maccabee dynasty, who were unfavorable to them, and remained a minor holiday for many years. Hanukkah, a celebration of national liberation and a military victory, did not fit well with the passive Diaspora culture of ultra-orthodox Jews. However, the holiday continued to be celebrated throughout the centuries and kept alive the embers of Jewish national feeling. With the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, and the rise of Zionism, Hanukkah assumed a new significance.

The two books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha tell the story of Hanukkah, which is verified in the main by external historical sources. The Seleucid Syrians had ruled Judea after the death of Alexander the Great. In 165 B.C., after a three-year struggle led by Yosef Matityahu and his sons, especially Judah Maccabee  (Yehudah Hahmaccabee in Hebrew), the Jews in what is now Israel defeated the Syrian tyrant Antiochus IV ("Epiphanes"), who had insisted on the institution of state-sponsored paganism, forced Jews to bow down to idols, and desecrated the temple (Beyt Hamikdash in Hebrew) in Jerusalem. Antiochus dedicated a pagan altar in the temple, and had sacrifices made to an idol.  

After hard fighting, the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem and entered the temple that was the center of Jewish religious and national life, symbolizing national liberation. They removed the idol that had been set there for pagan worship, cleansed the temple of pagan sacrifice and rededicated it. The date of Hanukkah, the 25th day of Kislev, was chosen because it was the anniversary of the dedication of the pagan alter.

The Maccabees issued coins and set up a  dynasty, but some historians believe that Judea remained a semi-independent protectorate.  In 164, "Judaeus Maccabeus" was recognized as a "friend of the Roman Senate and People," as recorded by Roman historians, but liberty was hard won in numerous battles. In the historical novel, My Glorious Brothers, the American writer Howard Fast dramatized the story of Hanukkah as a saga of national liberation.

According to tradition, when the Jews cleaned the temple, they found only one small container of oil with which to light their holy lamps. Miraculously, the container provided enough oil for eight days, until new new oil could be made and purified. Other sources tell of a torchlight parade in the temple, which may also have contributed to the tradition of lighting candles on Hanukkah.

To commemorate the miracle, each night, lights are lit in a special nine branched lamp called a 'hannukiyah (pronounced 'hah noo kee ah - the first "h" is guttural, the accent is on the last syllable). The 'hanukkiyah is a kind of menorah,   similar, but not the same, as the seven branched menorah of the temple. Jewish religious law forbids the use of seven-branched menorot (plural of menorah) as there is a general prohibition on imitating items in use in the temple. Most 'hannukiyot (the plural form) today use candles, but the original ones most likely burned oil. One candle or light in the center of the 'hannukiyah (the "shamash" or deacon) is lit first and used to light the others.  The first evening, the shamash and one additional branch are lit, and on each successive night an additional branch is lit until the total reaches eight on the last night. 

hanukiya.jpg (8520 bytes)

'Hannukiyah - Hanukkah "Menorah"


Hannukah is also called the "Festival of Lights" ('Hahg Hah ooreem) and was very likely combined with a winter solstice holiday that had come before it. Other peoples and religions have winter solstice holidays lasting about 8 days, beginning at about the time of the Winter equinox, December 21 - the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, and often celebrated with lights. Holidays that are certainly or possibly related to the winter solstice in their origins include Christmas, the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, and the new African American Kwanzaa holiday.

Wood Dreidles Hannukah is celebrated by eating foods fried in oil. European Jews eat latkes (a Yiddish word for potato and onion pancakes) and Israelis eat sufganiyot - a kind of cruller or hole-less doughnut like hush puppies familiar in the southern US. Sephardic Jews eat small cookies made of sugared fried batter. A game of chance called dreidel in Yiddish, using a four-sided top like those shown at left, is played as well. Some trace this game back to Roman and Greek games of chance played during Saturnalia, a holiday of pranks and games. Children get Hanukkah gifts, including money ("Hanukkah Gelt"), books or games.  

Hanukkah - An Ancient Hannukiya Though unlike Passover, Hanukkah is not one of the thee main Jewish religious holidays, it has a long history as a central holiday in Jewish tradition. Hanukkah is discussed in the Talmud. It seems that according to one tradition (the followers of Shamai) the lamp should be lit with right lights on the first day, and the number of lights decreased each day, while according to the followers of Hillel, the lamp should be lit with one light on the first day, and the number increased on successive days. A variety of hanukkiyot (Hanukah lamps) from earliest times, like the one at left,  testify to the continuity of the holiday celebrations. In ancient times, the holiday was not favored by the Pharisees, perhaps because of the Hellenizing (adoption of Hellenistic  culture) tendencies of the Maccabee dynasty and the fact that it was a holiday celebrating a political and military victory.

anukkah enjoyed a renewed popularity with the revival of Zionism in the 19th century. Proto-Zionist groups such as Hibbat Zion in Russia and Eastern Europe emphasized the celebration of Hanukkah as a holiday of national liberation and as a means of bringing children closer to their heritage, and making Judaism meaningful for those who were not strictly observant.

The Yiddish writer, Shalom Aleichem, wrote the story Hanukkah money ("Hanukkah Gelt" in Yiddish) illustrating the importance and centrality of Hanukkah celebrations for Jewish children in Eastern Europe. The importance and popularity of Hanukkah as a nationalistic holiday was no doubt aided by the rise of Zionism. In modern times, especially In the USA, Hanukkah has assumed somewhat greater importance as "the Jewish answer to Christmas." 

An Ancient Hanukkiya  

Latke Recipe

Latkes (or Latkehs) and other fried dishes are traditional Hanukkah foods.


  • An egg
  • 1-2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 lb. (200 grams) flour
  • 2 pounds (1 KG) potatoes 
  • One-half pound (200 grams) onions
  • 2 teaspoons of lemon juice

  • Directions

    Mix eggs, and salt. Add flour and beat or whisk well.

    Shred potatoes fine and onions finely by hand or using a food processor. Mix with lemon juice and let them drain in a colander. The lemon juice will prevent discoloration of the potatoes.  Add the drained mixture to the egg and flour mixture. 

    Latkes are fried in fairly deep oil, but they are not deep-fried. Heat an oiled frying pan and drop tablespoons of mix into pan/griddle. Flatten with a spatula, and turn with a spatula when they are golden brown.

    Serve with apple sauce, sugar or sour cream.

    More about Jewish Holidays

    More about Hanukkah on this website: "Lighting Activities: Hanukkah and the Menorah"

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    Adapted by permission from  Middle East - MidEastWeb

    Some photos courtesy of ajudaica

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