Bloody Massacres, Olive Oil & Donuts: The History of Hanukkah

By, Yasir Afzal

Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish celebration that begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew Calendar. It falls between November and December, meaning it typically overlaps with the traditional American holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. In America, Hanukkah is seen as Christmas’ little sibling due to how close both holidays are celebrated. Since the dates change every year, many Jewish people resort to googling its start date! There are roughly seven million Jewish people in the United States and over 15 million Jewish people around the globe. Hanukkah is a beautiful celebration of culture, religion and tradition.

DID YOU KNOW: Hanukkah is considered the Jewish Festival of Lights.

Where Did Hanukkah Come From?

In 200 B.C., the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus III, took over the Land of Israel (Judea). Hanukkah honors the period of time in Jewish history where Jewish rebels, called Maccabees, rose in a revolt against their Syrian oppressors. This was a time where religion was synonymous with power and control. Kings throughout Asia and Europe understood this very well. The Syrian king was somewhat merciful compared to others and let the Jewish people continue to practice their religion. This all changed when his son came to power.

 DID YOU KNOW: The foundation of Hanukkah is associated with the miracle that took place during the rebellion.

The new king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, outlawed the Jewish religion and forced Jews to worship Greek gods. He ordered his soldiers to enter Jerusalem, massacre thousands of Jewish people and desecrate the city’s holy Second Temple by sacrificing pigs and erecting an altar to Zeus within its walls. It was clear that the king was trying to religiously cleanse the Jewish people and force them to assimilate. The Jewish rebellion was led by a Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons. When Mattathias died during the revolt, his son, Judah Maccabee (aka – “the Hammer”), took over the rebellion and, within two years, successfully drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem.

 DID YOU KNOW: The menorah in the Second Temple was a gold candelabrum that has seven branches representing knowledge and creation.

When Judah and the other rebels regained control of the city, they began rebuilding the alter inside the Second Temple and lighting its menorah. The candles on the menorah were meant to burn all night; however, they only had enough olive oil to keep the candles burning for one day. Miraculously, the candles stayed lit for eight days, which gave Judah and his follower time to find a fresh supply of oil for the candles. This pivotal event led to the celebration of Hanukkah as we know it today.

(NOTE TO CHRIS: make the next section visually appear separate b/c this is where the history ends and info about the traditions begins)

What Hanukkah Traditions Are Observed?

Like all religious holidays, there are many traditions associated with Hanukkah.

The Menorah

During each night of Hanukkah, a candle is added to the nine-branched menorah, also called a hanukkiyah, after sundown. There are many different variations of the menorah, but the traditional one has nine branches.

Each candle branch signifies a night that Judah and his fellow rebels spent in the Second Temple. Each set has an additional ninth candle called the shamash or “helper,” which is used to light the other candles. A family elder usually recites a blessing during the lighting ritual. To properly celebrate Hanukkah, a family needs 44 candles because tradition calls for letting each candle burn all the way through. Acknowledging this tradition, many stores sell boxes of 44 candles to ensure families can appropriately celebrate the holiday. Menorahs are typically displayed in windows as a reminder to others of the miracle that inspired Hanukkah, much like the Christmas tradition of putting candles on windowsills.

 DID YOU KNOW: Traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in oil, which is an allusion to the miraculous lamp oil that lasted eight days in the Second Temple.

Presents, Food & Toys

Much like Christians during Christmas, Jews exchange gifts with family and friends during the Festival of Lights. When it comes to food, latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyots (jam-filled donuts) are favorites in Jewish households. Elders often give children chocolate coins, called gelts. Children play with four-sided spinning tops called dreidels. There is a Hebrew letter embossed or printed on each of the dreidel's four sides. These four letters form the acronym of the phrase: “Nes gadol hayah sham,” which means, “A great miracle happened there”—a reference to the miracle of Hanukkah.

DID YOU KNOW: When under Syrian control, children were forced to learn the Torah in caves (studying the Torah was punishable by death). When soldiers patrolled the caves, Jewish children would pull out their dreidels and pretend to be playing a game until the coast was clear. Then they’d go back to studying the Torah.

Thanks, in large part, to its proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah has become a major commercial holiday in the United States. Its prevalence affords non-Jewish people the opportunity to learn about this beautiful holiday. Learning about other culture’s traditions is a wonderful way for us to grow as a community and society. No matter what you celebrate this time of year, I hope that your holiday season is filled with light.

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