The Story of Chanukah
The story of Chanukah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Judea, but allowed the people under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated, adopting Hellenistic culture, including the language, customs and dress in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.
More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in regional control. He began to oppress the Jews, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs, a non-kosher animal, on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus. A nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a traditional religious group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees. They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Selucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the candelabrum in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. The holiday of Chanukah commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory because Jews do not glorify war.
Chanukah's religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu'ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance. Chanukah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture. The story is told in the book of the Maccabbees, which Jews do not accept as scripture.
The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a Canukia. Many people refer to the Canukia incorrectly as a menorah. The name menorah is used only to describe the seven-branched candelabrum that was housed in the Jewish Temple. The Canukiah holds nine candles. One for each night, plus a shamash (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shamash candle is lit and three berakhot, blessings, are recited. l'hadlik neir, a general prayer over candles, she-asah nisim, a prayer in thanksgiving for miracles performed for ancestors, and she-hekhianu, a general prayer of thanksgiving for reaching this time of year. The first candle is then lit using the shamash candle, and the shamash candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour. Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right because you pay honor to the newest thing first.
Because of the law prohibiting the lighting of a fire on Shabbat, Chanukah candles are lit before the Shabbat candles on Friday night, and they are lit after Havdalah on Saturday night. The following blessing is said: Blessed are You, our God, Creator of time and space, who enriches our lives with holiness, commanding us to kindle the Chanukah lights.
On the first night, the Shehecheyanu is also recited.
It is traditional to eat fried foods on this holiday, because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Among Ashkenazic Jews, this usually includes latkes ( potato pancakes).
Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians. The only traditional gift of the holiday is gelt, small amounts of money. Chanukah gelt is a Jewish custom rooted in the Talmud. The Talmud states that even a very poor person must light Chanukah lights, even if he can’t afford it. A person with no money is required to go knocking on doors until he collects enough to buy at least one candle for each night of Chanukah. The Torah concept of charity, tzedakah, requires Jews to help the recipient in the most dignifiaed manner possible. The custom arose to give gifts of money during Chanukah so that anyone needing extra money for Chanukah candles could receive it in the form of Chanukah Gelt.
Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. A dreidel is marked with the following four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimmel, Heh and Shin. On Israeli dreidels, there is no Shin but rather a Peh, which stands for Po, meaning here.