Sunday evening, December 9th, begins the holiday celebration of Chanukah (Hanukkah). Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays. It is a time for happy family gatherings around the Menorah (candelabrum), for children's songs, potato latkes, and games of 'dreidel'. For many Jewish people it brings back fond memories of childhood, or serves to renew their Jewish identity.
The story of Chanukah, though very popular, is not an important religious story and is not mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of Maccabees, which Jews do not accept as scripture. But because of its proximity to Christmas, many non-Jews (and even some assimilated Jews) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs like gift giving and decorating, and it begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month (which is December 9th) of Kislev.
The Chanukah story centers around events which occurred in 160 B.C.E. (before the common era), during the time of the reign of Alexander the Great. The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. This holiday not only commemorates the oil lamps in the Temple, which burnt miraculously for 8 days, but at the most personal level, the eight days are a journey to ones personal physical and spiritual self. Chanukah also reminds everyone that in life we live in partnership with God.
The inner calling of the Jew is to illuminate the world. That is the significance of the menorah and lighting of the candles. The universal Jewish custom is to begin by lighting one candle from right to left (like the Hebrew language) then each evening light an additional candle until all candles have been lit, thus remembering to never lose sight of your dreams, goals, and to vision a bright and peaceful future. Candles are lit from left to right because you pay honor to the newer thing first. The Hanukkah candles are for pleasure only; you are not allowed to use them for any productive purpose. An extra candle, called the shammus (servant), is the candle for that purpose. This candle is at a different height so that it is easily identified. These candles are lit to disperse darkness and create brightness and contentment throughout the world.
It is traditional to eat fried foods on Hanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. This usually includes latkes (pronounced "lot-kuhs" or "lot-keys" depending on where your grandmother comes from. They are called "potato pancakes" if you are a goy (gentile/non-Jew)). Assisting the Jewish community is our Waynedale Bakery, located at 2610 Lower Huntington Road, maintaining its traditions of baked goods such as, challah (bread used for Sabbath), special cookies, and various sweet treats.
Gift giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians, as a way of dealing with a child's jealousy.
Another Jewish tradition is playing Dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M & M's or chocolate coins. A Dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimmel, Heh and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase "nes gadol hayah sham," (a great miracle happened there). It actually stands for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half), and shtell (put), which are the rules of the game. Everyone puts in one coin. A person spins the Dreidel. On Nun, nothing happens; on Gimmel, you get the whole pot; on Heh, you get half of the pot; and on Shtell, you put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one in. Keep playing until one person has everything. Then redivide it, because nobody likes a poor winner.
A traditional song of this holiday is "Maoz Tzur," better known to Christians as Rock of Ages.
For more information about Chanukah, visit the internet. There you will find recipes for Latkes, a list of Jewish dates and also Chanukah Blessings.
Happy Chanukah... and may this Festival of Lights bring Blessings upon You and all your loved ones.