How do we spell this holiday in English?

Since there is no English equivalent to the sound represented by the Hebrew letter chet, there are multiple possible spellings, including Chanukkah and Hanukkah. Adapting the classical Hebrew pronunciation with the geminate and pharyngeal Ḥethcan lead to the spelling “Hanukkah” while adapting the modern Hebrew pronunciation with no gemination and uvular Ḥethleads to the spelling “Chanukkah.” Either way, we know what you mean.

What is Hanukkah?

This question is a famous one. In the ancient collection of rabbinic texts, stories, and teachings known as the Talmud, our rabbis asked, “Mai Hanukkah,” or “what is Hanukkah?” (This appears in Tractate Shabbat, page 21b). The great scholar and commentator Rashi understands this question to mean: which miracle does Hanukkah celebrate? The rabbis teach that we are celebrating the miracle of the cruise of oil that lasted eight days.

The story is that in 175 BCE, Greco-Syrian forces under Antiochus IV invaded Judea, desecrated the Second Temple and forbade traditional religious practices by Jews Mattityahu, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”). After the forces were driven from the Temple, the Maccabees discovered that most of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, with enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for just a single day. They used this oil, and it burned not for one day but for eight full days! (This is the time it took to have new oil pressed and made ready.)

Is this story of the miracle of oil true?

The rabbis of the Talmud were quite self-consciously adapting and retelling the narrative and meaning of the historical events told in the two books of the Maccabees. These are the last books in the Apocrypha, meaning texts of Jewish religious tradition that were not placed inside the Biblical canon.

The books of Maccabees are filled with stories of defiance and martyrdom by Mattathias and his five sons. In addition, the war is described in the Megillat Antiochus, which dates to the 2nd century. During the Middle Ages, Megillat Antiochus was read in Italian synagogues on Hanukkah, just as the Book of Esther is read on Purim, and it still forms part of the Hanukkah liturgy of the Yemenite Jews. (A translation of this megillah can be found in the Birnbaum siddur in Temple Reyim's Wasserman Library.)

How do we observe Hanukkah?

Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, and lasts eight days. We light candles on each night. Traditionally we use olive oil with cotton wicks, but many also use wax candles. It is customary to place the candles on a hanukkiah (often called a menorah). The hanukkiah should have eight candle holders that are all at the same level (and customarily in a straight line) and a ninth candle holder (for the Shamash) that is separated from - and typically higher than - the other eight.

We light candles at the time of sunset in the presence of many people to make the miracle publicly known. We place the hanukkiah in our windows, near the entrance or on a table that is higher than three t’fachim (approximately 10 inches) from the floor. In the synagogue, we light candles between the Mincha and Maariv services and again for Shacharit.

On the first night we recite three blessings: lehadlik ner shel Hanukkah (lighting the candles of Hanukkah), she-asa nissim (blessing of miracles) and shehechiyanu (blessing for first occasions). On the other nights, we say only the first two blessings.

How do we light the candles?

First we light the shamash. We then recite the blessings and light the candles. We try to stay quiet between the recitation of the blessings and the completion of lighting the candles so that our blessings and the act of mitzvah are closely connected, enhancing our sense of the importance of the mitzvah and the meaning of the ritual moment.

On the first night, we place one candle on the far right and each night we add candles to the left. We light the newest candle first and proceed to the right.

After lighting candles, it is traditional to sing Haneirot Halalu, meaning “these lights,” followed by Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages”, which recounts the exodus from Egypt and the deliverance from Babylonia, Persia and Syria. It was composed by “Mordechai,” a 13th-century poet whose name is found in the initial letters of the first five Hebrew stanzas.

On Friday evening, we light the candles just before the Shabbat candles. On Saturday night, we first recite Havdalah and then light the Hanukkah candles.

So that the Hanukkah lights shine to fulfill their own purpose only, we leave a light on in the room where the candles are burning. For some, it is customary not to work, or even to perform housework, while the candles are burning.

How else do we celebrate?

To remember and celebrate the miracle of the oil, we eat foods cooked in oil during Hanukkah, including latkes and donuts. It is traditional to play games of chance on Hanukkah, especially the dreidel. Each side of the dreidel has a letter of the Hebrew alphabet; nun, gimmel, heh and shin. These letters stand for the words nes gadol hayah sham – meaning “a great miracle happened there,” a reference to miracle of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one. These letters also form a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel; nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht (nothing), heh stands for halb (half), gimmel for gants (all), and shin for shtel ayn (put in). In Israel, the fourth side of the dreidel is inscribed with the letter pei, for poh, instead of shin, to mean “a great miracle happened here”, in Israel.

The custom of giving Hanukkah gelt (money) or presents to children dates to a long-standing East European custom of children presenting their teachers with a small sum of money at that time of year as a token of gratitude. In Hebrew, the words hanukkah (dedication) and “hinnukh” (education) come from the same root. In time, money was also given to children to keep for themselves. The gelt was meant to spread happiness and to give additional incentive to children to study.

Do we add any special prayer during services?

Yes! Throughout Hanukkah, the prayer al hanissim (upon the miracles) is added to the central prayer, the Amidah, and to our blessing after the meal, birkat hamazon. We recite full Hallel and omit our prayers of supplication called tachanun. We read Torah each day, and after the reciting the Psalm of the Day, we add the psalm mizmor shir chanukat.

This is a wonderful holiday we look forward to celebrating together!