What Is Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a holiday that is celebrated by Jewish people during the winter season. In the United States, the holiday is celebrated for eight subsequent nights. The dates of the holiday vary by year, as the Jewish year is governed by the lunar (versus solar) calendar. The holiday usually takes place sometime during the month of December.

One of the most important traditions of Hanukkah is the lighting of the menorah. Each night, another candle is light until all nine candles (one for each night and the “shamash”) are lit. When lighting the candles, three prayers are said on the first night and two prayers are said on each subsequent night. In addition, it is traditional to sing songs following the candle lighting. These songs include “Rock of Ages” and “Light one Candle.” Many Jewish children learn these songs in Hebrew school. After the candle lighting, some families place the menorah in a window for passersby to see.

It is also traditional to play a game of “dreidel” on Hanukkah. The game involves spinning a four-sided top. There is a Hebrew letter on each of the four sides. If the dreidel lands on “nun,” the spinner does nothing. If the dreidel lands on “shin,” the spinner places a game piece (such as a penny or piece of candy) in the pot. If the dreidel lands on “hey,” the spinner takes half the pot. If the dreidel lands on “gimmel,” the spinner takes the entire pot. The game continues until one player has all of the game pieces.

There are many foods that accompany Hanukkah celebrations. “Gelt” are coin-shaped pieces of chocolate. These are normally sold in small bundles at grocery stores and Jewish specialty shops. Many bakeries also sell cookies, cakes and other pastries that feature Hanukkah decorations.

Most traditional Hanukkah foods, however, are cooked with oil. The oil is to symbolize the oil that lasted eight nights (when it was only expected to last one night). Latkes are potato pancakes that are made with grated potato, onion, flour, salt and pepper. They are fried in oil until they are golden brown. They are often eaten with sour cream and applesauce. Jelly doughnuts are also a traditional Hanukkah food because they are fried in oil.

Children usually receive gifts from their parents on Hanukkah. Some children receive a gift on each night for a total of eight gifts. Not all families follow this tradition, and some children receive gifts on only a few of the nights of Hanukkah. The tradition of gift giving is not as central to the holiday as is the lighting of the menorah and the eating of foods fried in oil.

Although Hanukkah often takes place around the same time as Christmas, the holiday does not have as high a level of significance to Jewish people as Christmas does to Christian people. Hanukkah is considered a relatively minor holiday, at least in comparison to Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of atonement). Hanukkah is observed in some capacity by most Jewish people, but it is not considered to be among the most serious or important holidays on the Jewish calendar.

Hanukah commemorates the Maccabean Revolt in Jerusalem that took place around 160 BC. King Antiochus had ordered that the Second Temple in Jerusalem be rededicated to Zeus. The Jewish people were prohibited from performing their traditional rituals inside the temple. This sparked a revolt led by the Maccabes (Jewish warriors). The revolt was led by a man named Judah. The Maccabes liberated the Second Temple, and, as part of the liberation, lit a candelabra. Unfortunately there was only enough oil to last one night, however Jewish law required that the candelabra burn continuously. The oil, however, burned for eight nights, which was enough time to replenish the supply of oil. This is considered to be a miracle.

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