Nine Facts for the Nine Candles of Hanukkah
Hanukkah is the yearly “Festival of Lights” holiday on the 25th day of Kislev in the Jewish calendar. Jews worldwide celebrate the victory of Jewish troops and Judah Maccabee over Greek soldiers and the purified oil which lit the menorah for eight days continuously—hence the eight-day, eight-night celebration.
Whereas Christians light up the Christmas tree, Jews fire up the menorah. Nine candles are added onto the fancy candelabrum from right to left but are lit from left to right—tricky!
Sure, you know that your Jewish neighbors light up a menorah in the front window. You’ve heard the “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” song or maybe Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song. You know something miraculous happened with oil or candles. But, of course, there’s a lot more to Hanukkah than a gloss over the basic facts you can find on Wikipedia.
The story of Hanukkah includes hammering people in the face, seducing bad guys with cheese, and cutting off a war general’s head. There are complicated rules for how to use the menorah and various blessings in place for it. Some people don’t like Hanukkah or don’t think it’s important or don’t agree with the ideology it celebrates. Others are pretty much obsessed. After you learn more about it, maybe you’ll latch onto the holiday, too. Heat up that frying pan. It’s time for latkes and donuts, it’s time for Hanukkah! Happy Hanukkah to all.
The Maccabees Were Bad Asses, But Not Everyone Supports Their Cause.
Who were the Maccabees, you may ask? Well, lemme tell you. The Maccabees (aka the family of Mattathias) were a little group of super tough rebel fighters who combatted the Greek and Syrian Empire of King Antiochus. They were led by the glorious Matisyahu and his son Judah. What’s “Maccabee” mean, anyway? Hammer. Why? The Maccabees were known for beating the crap out of their enemies with blows from hammers clutched in their bulky fists.
These days, some contest that their “victory” over Antiochus wasn’t really a victory at all, though. See, King Antiochus had the virtuous and modern goal of turning the focus away from religion and ritual and towards logic and reason. He was annoyed with Jewish rebels and outlawed major tenets of Judaism like circumcision and respect for the Sabbath. What’s more, he defiled their temples by creating an altar to Zeus, riddling the temple with an unwanted and anti-Jewish idol.
The war wasn’t fought for land gain or wealth or fun. Rather, the Maccabees were fighting to keep the faith and quit the secularization (then, Hellenization) of their nation. They put the focus back on God when they won, purifying the temple and giving birth to what we now know as Hanukkah.
According to Christopher Hitchens, Hanukkah is the celebration of the “triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness.” Ouch! To Hitchens, the lighting of the menorah doesn’t make much sense. Usually light in darkness stands for knowledge and enlightenment, but in this case, Jews doused the flame of intellectualism and replaced it with “theocratic darkness.” Well, I can think of one person who won’t be celebrating Hanukkah anytime soon… And, actually, he’s not alone.
It’s Debatable on Whether or Not It’s Really That Important to Jews.
At least, that’s what the Farmers’ Almanac says. According to the FA, it’s a little odd that Hanukkah is celebrated so widely in the U.S. It’s considered a minor holiday in terms of Jewish religion because it calls for little restriction on followers’ behavior or diet. Jews continue to go to work on Hanukkah, and they don’t even wear special clothes. Major holidays include Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. I’ve never even heard of Sukkot! Some believe Hanukkah is so big because it’s the Jewish alternative to Christmas.
Then again, the level of importance varies depending on who you ask. Maimonides, in his Laws of Chanukah, argues that everyone should celebrate the holiday:
The mitzvah of kindling Chanukah lamps is a very precious mitzvah. A person should be very careful in its observance, to publicize the miracle and thus increase our praise of G?d and our expression of thanks for the miracles which He wrought on our behalf. Even if a person has no resources for food except what he receives from charity, he should pawn or sell his garments and purchase oil and lamps to kindle them.
In other words, Hanukkah isn’t minor at all. It doesn’t matter if you can’t pay for food or clothes. Buy that oil and menorah and light it up. Anyway, who doesn’t want a reason to celebrate and be merry? Especially in the dark and chilly winter season.
The Menorah is One Complicated Object.
So you’d think the Hanukkah menorah (more properly referred to as the Hanukkiah) would have eight candles for eight days—almost anyone would forge the guess. Turns out, there are nine. The ninth candle, known as the shamus (meaning “servant” or “helper”), is placed on a higher branch of the menorah and is used to light the other candles. Fancy that!
The menorah is a huge symbol of Judaism, next to the Star of David, and for good reason: the miracle of light. The menorah stands for the light and wisdom found in divine inspiration.
Here’s what the Shabbat has to say:
When the Greeks entered the Temple courtyard they made all the oil in the Temple impure. When the kingdom of the House of Hasmoneans (that is, the Maccabees who ascended to the throne following their triumph over the Greeks) were victorious, they checked (the Sanctuary) and did not find but one container of oil with the high priest’s seal. There was enough oil for only one day. But there was a miracle and the oil lasted eight days. The following year a holiday was established for praise and recognition.
That holiday was, of course, Hanukkah. The miraculous oil gave the Jews eight days to find new oil to rededicate their temple to their G-d. Take that, Zeus!
This year, Jews will begin to light the menorah on December 6th.
Hanukkah is More Than Lighting Candles—There are Blessings to Give!
Like any other holiday, Hanukkah has a wide variety of traditions. Lighting the candles of the menorah, in particular, is a very exciting and interesting process. Here are a few of the rules. For one, Hanukkah lights are supposed to burn for at least half an hour after it’s gotten dark. Usually three blessings called brachot are recited when lighting the candles. On the first night, all three are recited. On the next nights, only the first two are recited. The order in which the candles are lit is important as well: they are placed from the right to the left each day but are lit from left to right!
Here are the blessings in order:
- Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.
- Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.
- Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.
Hanukkah lights can either be candles or oil-fueled. Because of the Hanukkah story, oil, olive oil, is the idea fuel.
Who Doesn’t Love Fried Foods? Hanukkah Wins at Fat and Happy.
Like any other big holiday, Hanukkah has its own set of delightful delicacies. They’ve been around for the past thousand years! Remember: one of the most important aspects of Hanukkah is the celebration of oil that miraculously lasted eight days as fuel for the temple menorah. Because of this, oil enters the food picture as well.
Thank goodness the miracle of Hanukkah happened thanks to oil. Because of this, Jews enjoy fattening, oily treats like sufganiyahs (aka jelly-filled donuts) and latkes (potato pancakes, mmm). Latkes, fried of course, are often topped with applesauce for a sweet zing or with sour cream for a more savory taste. There are all sorts of popular varieties, though, including parsnip, sweet potato, gingered, curried, and cheesy latkes.
Israelis eat up to 24 million donuts in just eight days… that’s 10.8 billion calories, you guys. Not million. Billion. Now that is something to be proud of.
The tastiness doesn’t end with oily goodness. There’s cheese too! Think lots of cheesecake and blintzes. The story behind why is one of the most interesting Hanukkah stories (more on that later, though. Get excited).
There are un-fried and un-cheesy Hanukkah foods, but they’re not nearly as popular as these to-die-for favorites.
Let the Spinning Begin! You Can’t Have Hanukkah Without a Couple Dreidels.
Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel… I made it out of clay…
What’s the best way to get away with reading the Torah behind the Greeks’ backs? Pretending to gamble instead, of course. Whereas plenty of people have been punished throughout history for gambling, in the Jews’ case, gambling got them a free pass. Studying the Torah was strictly forbidden by the Greeks when they took over. Strict as in punishable by death. Whenever Greek soldiers happened to sneak in on Jewish children studying the Torah, they’d quickly get out their dreidels—“We’re only gambling!” they’d say, crouched in the forest or in caves. Dreidels became a funny symbol of religious devotion of all things.
“Dreidel” is Yiddish for a four-sided spinning top. It’s a popular game for children when celebrating Hanukkah. Each side of the dreidel has a letter pressed or painted on it: nun, gimmel, hey, and shin. The four letters are an acronym of the phrase “Nes gadol hayah sham,” meaning “A great miracle happened there, referencing the miracle of light and what would become Hanukkah.
Dreidel is a game of chance. If the top lands on nun, you get none. Nothing happens—your spin is thrown out. Nun, as you could guess, means “zero” in Yiddish. If the top lands on gimmel, it’s gimme. You get the whole pot! Whatever’s been bet on—money or chocolate coins or other candies—is all yours. Gimmel comes from gantz, meaning “whole.” Hey is for halb, or “half.” You get half of the pot! Not so bad. Shin, though? It’s as bad as it can get. You have to sacrifice another coin or betting piece. Shin is for shenk which is “give” in Yiddish. The games end when the donuts or latkes are all gone or when the littlest has fallen asleep in a pile of chocolate coins.
But What to Gamble With? Chocolate Coins of Course.
Chocolate coins are the go-to candy for Jews during Hanukkah. Hanukkah gelt (“money” in Yiddish) are small coins parents and grandparents give to their children for Hanukkah. This tradition goes way back to when Eastern European children would give their teachers a small amount of money at the end of the schoolyear out of thanks.
There are other reasons that gelt are handed out. For one thing, the Talmud reminds Jews that counting money in front of the sacred menorah is not allowed. Giving out gelt and counting it away from the menorah is a way to remind children and one another of this rule.
Here’s a beautiful reason why gelt is used: the Talmud states that no matter how poor you are, having oil and a menorah is absolutely necessary for Hanukkah. If you have money you’d usually buy on clothes, spend it on Hanukkah. Gelt was given to the poor to reduce their shame and allow them to celebrate Hanukkah as well. Poor students would also be given gelt for the same reason.
Lastly, gelt symbolizes the independence Jews gained after their battle with the Assyrians. Once they had won, they had the freedom to create their own coinage.
These days, chocolate gelt are more popular than actual coins. In the 1920s, American chocolatiers launched chocolate gelt wrapped in gold and silver.
The Hanukkah Bush Exists.
Maybe you’ve heard of the Christmas tree. But have you heard of the fantastically beautiful Hanukkah bush? The Hanukkah bush is a bush or a tree, real or fake, that some North American Jewish families choose to display along with their menorah by the window. Hanukkah bushes are, basically, Jewish Christmas trees.
As you can probably imagine, the Hanukkah bush isn’t exactly popular with the entire Jewish community. Some view you as a sell-out if you get one, or even as betraying the Jewish faith. Others say it doesn’t even exist, but there is a Wikipedia page for it, after all, and numerous articles available online. And I mean, it’s no menorah. Others, of course, don’t really care how you celebrate Hanukkah either way. As long as there’s fried food and cheese, they’re happy. Typically, rabbis discourage Hanukkah trees, but some Reform, Reconstructionist, and more liberal rabbis are cool with them.
On Chabad.org’s Ask the Rabbi segment, Rabbi Shmuel Kogan responds to the question, “What is your view on the “Chanukah Bush” phenomenon?”
Here are some excerpts from his answer:
Straddling a fence, sitting with one foot on each side, is not a comfortable position to sit out life. If you don’t know where you stand–or sit–how will your children know which direction to take in life? They start off life with a confused identity; and even if the confusion is not apparent, it festers beneath the surface…
Why should a Jew need to incorporate symbols and rituals from the outside to add beauty to his home and traditions? There is so much depth and meaning in the rich heritage of Judaism. One needs to simply put minimal effort to find it…
The Rabbi goes on to say he isn’t judging anyone, but his message is pretty clear: if you’re a good Jew, you’ll ditch the Hanukkah tree.
You Go, Judith. A Woman Who Seduced a Man with Cheese Was One of Hanukkah’s Greatest Heroes.
Judith seduced a man with cheese. That’s right. Cheese. And for this reason, Jews celebrate Hanukkah by eating massive amounts of dairy products. Still, Judith’s story is one of those that gets forgotten all too often.
So, let’s remember and honor her. Here’s Judith’s story: Judith overcame Holofernes by feeding him particularly salty cheese. Holofernes was an extremely cruel and rude general of Assyria’s emperor Nebuchadnezzar. He was invading Bethulia, and if Bethulia fell, so would the rest of the country. The city planned to surrender, with little choice or hope otherwise. Judith, though, a young widow, reported to the enemy camp with a genius plan in mind.
Judith was pretty. And Holofernes, like most men, had a weak spot for pretty, unwed women. He invited her to a banquet and the cheese-eating began. Holofernes was so thirsty after eating the particularly salty cheese that he downed glasses and glasses of wine until he passed out. Alone with him in his tent, Judith prayed to God for strength and then beheaded the guy. Clean sliced off his head. The Assyrian army was like a chicken with its head cut off without Holofernes. They quickly fell to a surprise attack by the Israelites.
Judith is an inspiration. Her bravery pushed history in a new, unexpected direction. And now, in honor of her, Jews eat cheese plates upon cheese plates, cheesecake, and cheese-filled blintzes like there’s no tomorrow.
So there you have it! The story of Hanukkah then and now. Hanukkah is much more than lighting a couple of candles and praying and singing around the menorah. There’s a story behind it: the rise of the Maccabees and the fall of the Greeks and Assyrians. There was a bitter war and the Maccabees were forced to fight with hammers in their fists. Women like Judith joined the fight as well. And, miraculously, the Jews won. The Jews were able to remove Greek articles from their temples, and amazingly, a day’s worth of oil lasted eight days and eight nights.
Today, the memory lives on in the burning of the menorah for eight days and eight nights. The memory of children secretly studying the Torah lives on in the game of dreidel. The memory of gelt, and giving to others, lives on in children’s chocolate gelt.
People have different opinions about Hanukkah: some think it’s a minor holiday, others argue that it’s a major holiday. Some think the Jews prolonged ignorance in prolonging their faith and fighting against Hellenistic movement towards enlightenment and science. Others believe it’s a beautiful holiday and that the strength of the Jews should be celebrated—they rose against great odds and emerged victorious! Some stick to the traditions, reciting prayers, lighting candles at the right times of day in the right order, whereas others buy Hanukkah trees. Regardless of what you believe in or how you choose to celebrate, though, there’s always fried food and cheese available. And that is a beautiful thing.