The Festival of Channukah

This year, Channukah begins on the evening of Friday, December 11, 2009.  Since I have family and friends who do not observe this holiday, I thought it might be nice to share with you the story of Channukah (brief version) and some of its customs.

What is the festival of Channukah?

In ancient times, the Greeks ruled over Israel and issued harsh decrees against the people.  For instance, all religious practices were outlawed, Jews were not allowed to study Torah, Greek citizens were allowed to steal from the Jews, and in general they were treated very badly in  many ways.  The Greeks even ravaged the Temple, the center of Jewish religious life, and defiled all that was ritually pure.  These were extreme times for Israel.  After suffering years of abuse, a scraggly band of rebels rose up against the mighty Greek overseers.  From the Hasmonean House, a band of rebels, the Maccabean family, rose up and overpowered the mighty Greeks and regained the Temple.  It was on the twenty fifth of the Jewish month of Kislev that the Israelites prevailed against the Greeks.  When they victoriously entered the Temple, they found only one jar of pure oil that could be burned in the sanctuary, just enough oil for one day.  They needed a continuous supply of pure olive oil to keep the light burning everyday.  They lit the Menorah anyway and prayed for a miracle.  And instead of burning for just one day, the Menorah burned for eight days, long enough for the people to press pure oil that could be used in the sanctuary thereafter.  In celebration of the miracle of the oil and lights, the Sages decreed that every year, beginning on the twenty fifth of Kislev, lights be lit at the entrance to homes on each of  eight nights to publicize the miracle.  These days were to be called Channukah–inauguration, consecration; one could also interpret the word as “chanu” [they rested] kah [on the twenty fifth] — for on the twenty fifth they rested from the battle with their enemies. 

What are some of the customs of Channukah?

*One tradition is that no one works while the Channukah candles are burning. In fact, women especially are admonished not to work!  And some traditions allow the women not work at all during the days when the Channukah candles are lit.  (I don’t know anyone who does that but it sounds like a good idea.)

*It is tradition to eat foods fried in oil (latkes, yum!) commemorating the jar of oil through which the miracle occurred. 

*Great focus is placed on learning Torah, and in order to induce their children to study Torah, fathers would give gelt (money….today we give chocolate coins) to children for learning Torah during Channukah.

 *One beloved custom is the game of dreidel, played by children everywhere.  The dreidel (Channukah top) is inscribed with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, heh, and peh, an acronym for nes gadol hahah poh — “a great miracle occurred here.”  Outside the land of Israel, the peh is replaced with the letter shin, the first letter of the word sham meaning “there”, referring to the land of Israel.

There are numerous customs. and stories abound about this beloved holiday.  It is a time of gaity and laughter, learning and lights, food, family and community.  One of the customs we have instituted in our house over the years is storytelling.  After we have lit the candles, we read stories about Channukah, stories passed down through the years of miracles that happened during this festival.  And, once the candles are lit, I sit down, enjoy the latkes and apple sauce, read a story or two, and I do not do any work until the last candle has burned out.

May you have a happy Channukah!