Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and commemorates the miracle that occurred during the year 165 BCE.
At that time, King Antiochus, leader of the Syrian-Greek Empire, ruled over the land of Israel and enacted laws designed to prohibit Jews from practicing their religion. Furthermore, King Antiochus ordered his soldiers to desecrate the holy Temple, the focus of Jewish ritual life in Israel, by placing pagan idols in the sanctuary.
Under the dynamic leadership of Judah the Maccabee of the Hasmonean dynasty from the village Modi'in, the Jews revolted against King Antiochus and his army. On the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, they triumphed over their enemies. In celebration of this historic triumph, Judah cleansed the Temple of all the impurities and arranged for a special rededication. In fact, the word "Hanukkah" comes from the Hebrew word for dedication.
The Talmud teaches that when the Jews searched for the oil necessary to light the menorah, all they could find was one vial, enough for just one day. However, a miracle occurred and the oil burned for eight days instead of one. For this reason, Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights and is celebrated for eight days. Hanukkah symbolizes the triumph of the few against the many and the concept of religious freedom. It is also a time for rededication and renewal.
The menorah, or chanukiah, is a candelabrum that has eight level openings for candles (for oil and wicks), and a ninth elevated opening for the shamash candle that is used to light the other candles. We light the menorah every night after sunset, except for Friday night, when it is lit before the Shabbat candles. We put an additional candle in the menorah for each new night of the holiday, placing them from the right side to the left—but we actually light the candles from left to right, starting with the new candle.
It is a mitzvah to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah, by placing the menorah in a public place. Publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah is the sole function of the candles, and one should not use them for any other purpose, such as for illumination.
The proper way to light the menorah is to first light the shamash, recite the Hanukkah blessing and then light the other candles.
Eating Fried Foods
It is customary to eat foods fried in oil to remember the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days. The latke, or potato pancake, is a food traditionally associated with Hanukkah; Jews in Israel eat sufganiot, which are jelly donuts that are fried in oil.
Spinning Your Sevivon
On Hanukkah, we play with dreidels (from the Yiddish for "spinning" or "turning"), which are four-sided tops. There is a legend that explains that the wicked King Antiochus forbade the Jews to study Torah and to observe the Jewish holidays; however the Jews continued to do so secretly. Whenever they were praying or studying, they would keep dreidels in their pockets, and if the Syrian soldiers came to the door, the Jews would hide their books and take out the dreidels and start playing with them. To play dreidel, start by giving each player a bunch of coins or gelt and form a small pot in the middle. On each side of the dreidel, or sevivon in Hebrew, there is a different Hebrew letter, corresponding to the acronym Nes Gadol Haya Sham, or A Great Miracle Happened There. Spin the dreidel round and round. If the dreidel falls on the Hebrew letter nun, you don't win anything. If it falls on gimel, you win it all! If it falls on hey, you win half of the pot. And, if it falls on shin, you have to add to the pot.
Gelt and Gifts
Hanukkah is a time to celebrate with family and friends and to exchange Hanukkah gelt or coins—real or chocolate! It has also become customary to exchange gifts.