Hanukkah (Chanukah)

Hanukkah or Chanukah is an eight-day holiday of the Jewish faith remembering the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucids in the Second Century BCE.  The festival lasts eight days, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev. This holiday corresponds with late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar.

The celebration is also known as the Festival of Lights. It is observed by lighting candles on a unique candle stand known as a menorah. The typical nine-candle menorah has eight branches with a final additional raised branch in the middle. The extra light is called the shamash and is given a location above the rest. This light is available for practical use. The Hanukkah lights themselves are to be used only for meditating upon the festival.

Dates for Hanukkah

Hebrew Dates: 25 Kislev
5777
25 Kislev
5778
25 Kislev
5779
25 Kislev
5780

Gregorian Dates:
(begins sundown, evening before)

December 25, 2016 -
January 1, 2017

December
13-20

2017

December
3-10

2018

December
23-30
2019

 

History

Most of the Jewish holidays find their origin in the Bible. This is not true of Hanukkah. In fact, Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Mishnah, other than a handful of passing references. Several rabbinical scholars speculate that information about the holiday was so commonplace that no one felt a real need to explain or comment upon it.

The story of Hanukkah is preserved in the books of First and Second Maccabees. These books are not a part of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh). Instead they are a part of a collection of books known as the Jewish apocryphal books. These books primarily account for Jewish history for about 400 years following Malachi, the final book of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Temple built by Solomon was completely destroyed by the Babylonians and Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE when most of Jerusalem was destroyed and its inhabitants either slaughtered or taken into slavery. Under the direction of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Temple was rebuilt with the blessing of Cyrus the Great who had overthrown the Babylonians. The construction began in 538 BCE and was finished about 23 years later.

The Temple barely escaped destruction again in 332BCE when the Jewish people refused to worship Alexander the Great as god. After his death, Judea and the Temple came under the rule of the Ptolemies. During this period, the Jews enjoyed many liberties and the place the Temple played in the lives of people was strengthened. When the Ptolemaic reign was ended by Antiochus III of the Seleucids in 198BCE and strong attempts were made to Hellenize the Jews and their worship. About ten years later, Antiochus died with many of his plans left unaccomplished.

His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, came to the throne about a year and a half later with the desire to accomplish his father’s goals. The Jews rebelled and Antiochus answered back with an incredible show of cruelty and force. He outlawed religious observances of the Sabbath and the practice of circumcision. He erected a statue of Zeus in the middle of the Temple courts and instructed Greek priests to sacrifice pigs on their altars.

In 167BCE the Jews rose up and fought for their freedom in what became known as the Maccabean revolt. Judas Maccabaeus oversaw the rededication of the Temple in 164BCE an event celebrated as a part of the festival of Hanukkah. Spectacular stories of bravery and the intervention of the Lord flavor the Jewish fight for freedom and religious expression.

One such story involves the one-day supply of oil for the lamps lasting eight days, the miracle which serves as the basis for the Festival of Lights. The account is described in the Talmud, written about 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees. The story is recorded that the soldiers of Antiochus IV had been driven from the Temple by the Maccabean troops. They soon discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned and left unusable for ceremonies in the Temple. They found one single container, sealed long ago by a high priest. It had enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for one day. They lit the lamp and it burned for eight days – the exact time that it took to have new oil pressed, dedicated and made ready.

Customs and Rituals

The festival of Hanukkah is both a time of celebration and a time of remembrance of the mighty acts of the Lord and the blessings to his people. It is a time of food and festivity, of candles and celebration. Because it is also a commemoration of the rededication of the Temple, the festival is also a time of worship, reverence and remembrance.

Many of the customs for celebrating the holiday involve the menorah and the dreidel.

Menorah is a Hebrew word meaning “candelabrum” and refers to a nine-branched candle holder in which Hanukkah candles are placed. Eight of the candles are blessed and lit each night of the celebration. One branch holds the shamash or “servant candle” which is used to light the others. In ancient times, the menorah contained oil lamps, but over the years the oil lights were replaced by wax candles.

The dreidel comes from a German word meaning “spinning top.” It is a toy that is used in a game during the festivities. Hanukkah was one of the only times during the year that rabbis permitted participation in games of chance. The four sides of the dreidel contain four Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hey, shin. Players begin by putting their treasures into a kitty. Buttons, nuts, small objects, or most often gelts – chocolate shaped to look like coins – were used. Each player spins the dreidel and

The letters of the dreidel were seen to stand for the first leeter of each word in the Hebrew phrase “Neis gadol hayah sham” which is translated “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the shin is often replaced by a pey, changing the statement to read “A great miracle happened here.”

Latkes, or potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, or jelly donuts, serve as the main ingredients in Hanukkah meals. These food are fried in oil, which serves as a symbol of the story of the oil that lasted for eight days.

In the synagogues, worship services are held each day. The Torah reading is taken from Numbers 6:22 through 8:4. This story recounts the dedication of the tabernacle while the Israelites were in the desert during the Exodus. On Chabbat during Hanukkah, the regular weekly reading will be used. Other selections are read from Zechariah 4 and 1 Kings 7.

Funerals, Shiva, and Jewish Mourning During Hanukkah

Jewish teaching provides specific guidelines for how the deceased should be properly mourned by the family through defined Periods of Mourning in Judaism. Overt mourning on Shabbat and Jewish holidays is forbidden.

The Jewish burial usually takes place within a couple of days after the death. It is usually a time of stress and busyness for the family, as many decisions and details surrounding the funeral must be considered. A telephone call relaying personal condolences would be welcomed.

Public viewing of the body is against Jewish law and tradition. There is no equivalent to the wake or funeral visitation. Today Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery building or graveside. Attending a funeral is a demonstration of care and concern for the surviving family and respect for the deceased. Invitations to a funeral are rarely offered, but friends are always encouraged to attend. In Judaism accompanying the family to the gravesite is one of the highest forms of kindness.

After the burial, the first period of mourning begins. Shiva (meaning “seven”) consists of seven days of mourning during which family members remain in their home. During shiva the family would stay home from work, refrain from public appearances, and not conduct any business transactions. Friends and family members would reach out to the bereaved by visiting the home to offer comfort and support.

Hanukkah has both solemn practices and festive ones. The more reverent times would not disrupt the mourning traditions of shiva. The burial would not be permitted on the Sabbath during Hanukkah. However, during the other days of the holiday, it would be permissible for the family to attend congregational services, but they should not participate in any leadership role. Their activities should reflect the respectful attitude of their time of loss.

On Hanukkah, the mourner should kindle the Hanukkah menorah reciting a blessing for the family and remembrance of the loved one.

Because of the sensitive nature of the time of loss, a rabbi should be consulted for proper procedures for mourning during the holiday, particularly in complicated situations. The rabbi will take into account the circumstances, traditions and Scripture and offer guidance.

Remembering Loved Ones During Hanukkah

Although there are public ceremonies, Hanukkah is primarily a festival celebrated at home. The actual mitzvah, or commandment, regarding Hanukkah is that the Hanukkah lights be kindled in the home. In some families each member of the household will light their own menorah. Some families will light one together, and will use the holiday to spend time together as a family.

Any member of the family may recite the blessings. One person lights the shamash and uses it to light the Hanukkah candle. Two blessings are recited every night. The first blesses the candles themselves. The second is a blessing of thanksgiving for deliverance. The first night of Hanukkah actually contains a third blessing – for all of the joyous occasions of life.

Because Hanukkah contains moments of remembrance and blessing within the family, it is a perfect time to honor and commemorate deceased family members. Lasting tributes such as contributions to charities, hospitals or hospices, synagogues or other organizations provide meaningful memorials for departed loved ones.

The tradition of inscribing one’s name in the book of life is a common occurrence in the Jewish faith. Families may light a yizkor candle, plant a tree in Israel, or dedicate a name plaque. Other meaningful and appropriate ways to memorialize a loved one include the creation of a Plaque and Memory page online through the National Jewish Memorial Wall (NJMW.org). The inclusion on a memorial or yahrzeit wall is a meaningful way to show honor and respect for the deceased.