Happy Hanukkah! What? I’m not Jewish! Nope, but as a Christian I know we owe a tremendous debt to our Jewish friends so I thought I’d take a break from my Christmas-themed posts and share a little Hanukkah history with you.
Today marks the beginning of Hanukkah, the eight-night Jewish “Festival of Lights,” which observers celebrate by lighting the candles on a menorah. As I write this and as you read it, Jews across the world are gathering to light candles and share blessings. We’ve all seen the tiered candelabras, now let’s learn about them.
It’s in honor of Judah Maccabee and his four brothers who lead a revolt against the Assyrian Greeks who had taken over Jerusalem. The Maccabees won the war and regained control of their cherished temple, which the Assyrians had all but destroyed. After cleaning it up, the Maccabees went to light a menorah lamp but could only find enough oil to last one night. That’s when Jews believe a true miracle happened as it lasted eight nights, allowing them to make more oil. This is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights.
During modern day Hanukkah traditions, each night one candle on a special menorah called a Hanukkiah is lit. There are a total of nine candles and there are blessings said with each lighting. It all kinda reminds me of our Christian Advent wreaths, their candles, and the accompanying prayers said with the lighting of them.
It’s not surprising, as Christianity is rooted in Judaism, the least of which is God’s own son, Jesus Christ, who was Jewish. Other teachings Christianity received from Judaism is our basic understanding of God, God’s covenant with His people, and the practice of assembling together for worship. Christians do so on Sundays; Jews on their Sabbath, roughly observed from Friday evening until Saturday night. The two faiths agree on many things. For example, Christians accept the Old Testament and all its teaching as inspired, and both faiths believe in the perfect creation of the world by an infinite God, that Satan introduced sin into the world, that God judges sin, and that sins must be atoned for. What most prominently separates the two is that Judaism does not accept the central Christian teaching that Jesus is the Messiah. For most Jews, the coming of the Messiah or the messianic age is still in the future.
Judaism is the oldest of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all of which serve only one God. Judaism is also the parent of both Christianity and Islam. Jews believe Yahweh, the only one God, created and rules the universe and revealed his law, the Torah, to the then Hebrews. The Torah contains more than 600 commands, which are summed up in the Ten Commandments. Sacred scriptures of Judaism are the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The scriptures also form the biblical Old Testament but do not adhere to the Christian New Testament.
So how is Hanukkah celebrated? First and foremost, it’s all about the oil; that sacred oil used in the Temple by the Maccabees. Today Jews traditionally eat two foods, sufganiyot, which are like jelly donuts; and the more famous latkes, which are basically potato pancakes. Both are fried in oil and are eaten throughout Hanukkah.
As with Christians and Christmas traditions, Jewish families vary in their Hanukkah traditions. Two things that are pretty standard are the giving of gifts and playing the dreidel. Gift giving is reserved for children, who receive a small present each night for the eight nights of Hanukkah. Unbeknownst to me, however, is that the dreidel is actually a game. Each side of one has a Hebrew letter that stands for the phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” which means “A great miracle happened here.” Players start with the same number of tokens, which can be anything from pennies to candies to the traditional chocolate coins called gelt. Players take turns rolling the dreidel, hoping they land on the side that allows them to take the “pot” in the middle. The game continues until one player collects all the tokens. Sounds fun to me!
Although we’ve all heard of Hanukkah, its fame is partially due to the fact that it falls so near Christmas. It is not considered a major holiday by Jews and is nowhere near the ranks of Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah or Passover, which are much more important and honored holidays.
Finally, is it Hanukkah or Chanukah? A Hebrew word, it has many English spelling variations, the most popular of which are Hanukkah and Chanukah. Traditionalists say the proper spelling of the word, which means “dedication” or “induction,” is “Chanukah” as it comes closest to representing the pronunciation of the Hebrew word and using Hebrew letters. “Hanukkah,” however, more accurately recreates the Hebrew spelling. However you spell it or however you say it, say it with respect.
So here’s to my Jewish friends. May your Hanukkah be blessed and may your year be full of joy. Mazel Tov!