Put on Your Yarmulke, Let’s Recap Hanukkah!

Photo via Wikimedia

Hanukkah 2016 began on December 24th and will last until January 1st. Just as title implies, join us as we give a breakdown of those Eight Crazy Nights.

Even if you’re not Jewish, you’ve probably heard of Hanukkah but you might not have the foggiest clue as to what it is, why it’s celebrated or even how it’s celebrated. Often unfairly dubbed the ‘Jewish Christmas’, Hanukkah is much more than that: mainly because it isn’t that at all. There are similarities between the two holidays, but Hanukkah has a rich history and tradition all its own. After all, the holidays themselves stem from two different religions.

Hanukkah is held on the 25th day of the Jewish month of  Kislev which often coincides with the Christian holiday, Christmas, but doesn't always. It’s known as the festival of lights, with families lighting candles on a menorah or a chanukiah (a 9-branched candelabra) for each day of the festival. The festival lasts 8 nights, and a tradition of giving a present on each night is observed by some. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s break it down a bit further.

The Breakdown

Hanukkah can also be spelled Chanukah, or Chanukkah, and all are pronounced ‘kHanookah’- the ‘ch’ acting like a strong, throaty ‘h’ sound. The word Hanukkah or חנוכה in Modern Hebrew, means ‘dedication’. Hanukkah takes on this name to celebrate the re-dedication of Holy Temple, a key element of why the holiday exists in the first place.

Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil after a temple sacking by the Seleucids. In the second century BCE, the Seleucids ruled the Holy Lands and were attempting to force practising Jews to give up their beliefs and practices and follow their polytheistic and Grecian way of life. Judah the Maccabee lead a group of Jews against the Seleucids and succeeded, regaining control of an important temple that had previously been overtaken by the Seleucids. In celebration and for religious observance, the Maccabees wanted to light the candelabra in the temple, but found only 1 allotment of oil remained unspoiled by the Seleucids. The oil was meant to burn all day and all night every day and night, but it would take some time for more religiously sanctified oil to be produced. Miraculously, the one day allotment of oil burned for 8 days and nights, when more blessed oil could be found. It’s because of this that candles are lit, and that the holiday lasts for 8 nights.

Modern Times

Photo via Wikimedia

Today, Hanukkah is celebrated by progressively lighting the menorah one candle per night until completing the menorah with blessings and sung prayers. Some families give presents while others will give cash to their children and encourage tzedakah, or giving to charity. Presents can be given on each night of Hanukkah, and Hanukkah gelt, a Yiddish word for gold, is dealt out to children. These chocolate coins are used to gamble on dreidel spins.

Dreidel or דרײדל‎ in Yiddish (or conversely סביבון‎‎ or sevivon in Hebrew) is both a game and an object. The dreidel is a kind of spinning top, that has 4 sides, each with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (He), ש (Shin). Together, these form the acronym for "נס גדול היה שם" (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which means ‘a great miracle happened there’).These letters were originally a way to remember the rules of the game played with chocolate gelt. Nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht ("nothing"), He stands for halb ("half"), Gimel for gants ("all"), and Shin for shtel ayn ("put in"). When a player spins the dreidel, they must follow letter cast, and place chocolate gelt (or sometimes other candies or nuts) in the middle of the playing area. As a player, you’re ultimately hoping for a gimel, so you can keep the whole chocolatey pile for yourself.

Photo via Wikimedia

Another delicious key element of Hanukkah is eating lots of delicious fried foods. This goes back, again, to the miracle of the oil. Expect to eat doughnuts like the sufganya, an Israeli favourite, it’s a beautifully fried, jelly-stuffed, baseball-sized, deep-fried ball of deliciousness. Latkes, or potato pancakes, are fried to a crisp golden brown and then eaten with applesauce or sour cream. Challah. an enriched, braided bread is often served as well, though it makes an appearance at most Jewish holidays. Brisket, a cut of beef, is served as a main typically, and every Jewish Mom has her own way of cooking it.

Hanukkah 2016 may be coming to an end for 2016, but not to fret, there's always next year! For now though, why not whip up some latkes, pour yourself a glass of Manischewitz (a kosher red ‘wine’) and watch the film Eight Crazy Nights, a little known Adam Sandler jam. Better still, you can listen to Sandler’s The Hanukkah Song to get yourself in the spirit.