Release Date: 
Tuesday, December 17, 2019

What Hanukkah means


This message is one of many messages related to our diverse community’s numerous unique holidays, including cultural, historic, and religious observances throughout the year. I am likely to write about the holidays or cultural observances that mean the most to you as they occur throughout the year. Please let me know if you want to learn my plans about a holiday that is specifically important to you.

Starting Sunday, Dec. 22, and concluding Monday, Dec. 30, millions of individuals and families worldwide will celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah). The holiday is widely known as the Festival of Lights.

What is Hanukkah?

The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication,” and this holiday commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

In 164 BC, a band of Jewish fighters called Maccabees, under the command of a man named Judah of the Maccabees, defeated the Greek (Seleucid) army that had captured the city of Jerusalem in 200 BC. Judah and his compatriots reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and sought to re-light its menorah (an oil-based candelabrum). They found only enough purified oil to keep the menorah lit for one day. However, the oil kept the menorah alight for 8 days, after which ritually purified oil was available.

To commemorate these events, the annual holiday of Hanukkah was created. Similar to the Jewish holiday of Passover, Hanukkah celebrates freedom from oppression. It also supports and celebrates freedom of religious expression.

Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, the 9th month of the Jewish ecclesiastical year. This date can occur from late November to late December of the Gregorian calendar, which is the civil calendar we follow in the United States.

Celebrations and observances

A centerpiece of Hanukkah is the lighting of the menorah. It contains eight candles, plus a central slot for the shamash (“servant”), which is used to light the other eight candles. On the first night of Hanukkah, a single candle is lit. Each succeeding night, an additional candle is lit, so all eight are burning on the final night. Families and friends will often gather and recite traditional blessings or sing songs together as they light the menorah.

To commemorate the miraculous oil from which the holiday originated, it is traditional to serve foods fried in oil. Latkes, or potato cakes, are a common food, as are sufganiyot, or jelly donuts.

Gifts of money (gelt), other kinds of gifts, or traditional treats such as nuts and raisins, are given to children. Giving to charity is encouraged for children and adults.

Another venerated tradition is a game children often play with a dreidel, a four-sided spinner that contains letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The letters are nun, gimmel, hey, and shin, an acronym for “nes gadol hayah sham,” which means “a great miracle happened there.” Each player puts one piece of candy or a penny into the pot, or takes pieces from the pot, depending on their spin of the dreidel. When the dreidel stops spinning, the letter facing up signifies what the player must do. Shin = add one piece to the pot, hey = take half the pot, gimel = take the pot, nun = do nothing.

Hanukkah is not specified in the Torah, thus its religious significance is minor for some, but it remains a popular and venerated holiday in Jewish culture. Communities will sometimes gather to light large outdoor menorahs, to sing together, and to share meals.

To all who celebrate: Hanukkah sameach!

Russ Kavalhuna President