This year, for eight nights starting December 8, Courtney Taylor of Fargo will light the candles of her menorah and feel connected to 2,100 years of tradition. That is because sunset on December 8 marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. “Lighting the menorah,” she says, “means providing spiritual light in the physical world.”
The story of how the menorah came to be a central figure in the observance of Hanukkah is rich and steeped in drama. Its origin goes all the way back to the book of Exodus in the Bible. God instructed Moses to have the people of Israel create a lamp stand of “hammered work” for the tabernacle. God further instructed that it should hold seven oil candles, with three branches on each side of a center cup. When the permanent Jewish Temple was established in Jerusalem in the tenth century, this lamp stand, called the menorah, became a permanent and essential implement of the Temple. It was to be fuelled with pure olive oil and burned continually.
The Menorah Miracle of Hanukkah
Fast forward a few hundred years to second century b.c.e. (Before Common Era). The Greeks lived in Israel and a tremendous clash of cultures took place. According to Rabbi Benjamin Blech in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism, “Hellenism [the Greek culture] worshipped the holiness of beauty; Judaism worshipped the beauty of holiness.” A battle raged for the heart of the Jews and many succumbed to the Greek lifestyle. Eventually, the King of Syria, who ruled over the Syrian-Greek Empire, ordered all people to become Greek in religion and culture in order to unify his kingdom. He outlawed Judaism and desecrated the Jewish Temple by putting a statue of Zeus at its center and sacrificing a pig on the altar. This non-kosher animal further intensified the act of desecration.
That was too much for one Jewish priest named Mattathias. He and his sons—known as the Maccabees—led a revolt against the defilers. A war raged for nine years until the Syrians were defeated and the Jews were able to return to their Temple. They removed the idols and rededicated it to their God.
Part of the rededication involved restoring and relighting the beloved menorah. However, since it was decreed that only pure olive oil could be burned in the menorah, the people found themselves in a predicament. They only had enough oil for one day and it would take eight days to get more. According to the Jewish tradition, they trusted God to provide and lit the menorah anyway. The oil that should only have lasted one day, instead lasted eight. In order to remember this miracle of God and the reclaiming of the Temple, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which means “rededication,” was established.
Not a Jewish Christmas
For Judaism, Hanukkah ranks fairly low in religious significance, but it is still an important reminder of God’s providence in the lives of the Jewish people. Blech says, “Just as the oil lasted much longer than it should have by way of a miracle, so too did they [the Jewish people] survive and succeed against impossible odds because God was with them.”
Because Hanukkah tends to be celebrated around the same time as Christmas, it may be considered by some to be a type of Jewish Christmas. Hanukkah begins sometime in late November or December, depending on when the 25th day of the month of Kislev occurs. Kislev is the name of the ninth month of the Jewish calendar. But the Jewish year is not the same length as a solar year on Gregorian (or western) calendars, so the date Hanukkah begins, always the 25th of Kislev, changes from year to year on the western calendar.
Some Jews believe that Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas puts it in danger of becoming over-commercialized, which is ironic since, according to Blech, “The major message of Hanukkah is that Jews shouldn’t assimilate or imitate the religious practices of their neighbors.”
Taylor says, “I agree that Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday because it is not mentioned in the Torah [the first five books of the Old Testament and Judaism’s most important text]. However, I believe the reason it gets the attention it does is because the holiday’s rabbinical stories are easy for children to understand and celebrate. The reformed emphasis on presents may be associated with Christmas, but saying prayers over candles is dictated by tradition, not popular culture.”
For Taylor, the main message of Hanukkah is faith. “Even when times are hard, Jewish people stick to their traditional beliefs. They have overcome oppression time and time again by remaining loyal to their historic beliefs and prayers.”
Hanukkah is observed in the home over an eight-day period. At the heart of the observance is the lighting of the candles each evening, one candle for each night of the festival. The candelabrum used is typically called the menorah, however, the correct name is the chanukia, because it has nine branches instead of seven. The seven-branched menorah can only be found in Jewish Temples because Jewish law forbids the reproduction of the Temple implements. In the chanukia, the cup in the middle is taller than the others and is called the shamash, which means “attendant.” It is used to light the other eight candles. Modern menorahs come in many artistic forms and the shamash may not always be the center candle, but it should always be the tallest.
Taylor’s earliest memory of Hanukkah was participating in a holiday skit in a preschool at her synagogue. “I served as one of the shamash candles,” she says, “to light the other student’s candles, singing Hanukkah songs all the while.”
The Hanukkah candles are lit immediately after dark, with the exception of Friday night, when they are lit before the Shabbat (Sabbath) candles. The candles are placed in their holders from right to left, starting with just one candle plus the shamash on the first night and adding an additional candle each night. They are lit from left to right, so that the latest addition is lit first. According to tradition, the candles should burn for at least half an hour and be placed on a windowsill or by a door so they can be seen from outside the house.
After the shamash has been lit and while lighting the other candle(s), blessings and thanksgivings are said to God for the sanctification of his people and for the many wonders he has performed on their behalf. It is also customary for children to get small gifts of money.
Like many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah has accompanying food traditions. Fried foods like sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts) and latkes (potato pancakes) are especially popular, as are oily foods. Taylor’s family selects at least one night to prepare a feast with brisket and potato latkes. “The latkes are devoured with applesauce and sour cream.”
The dreidel is also a part of the Hanukkah celebration. This four-sided spinning top is a common symbol reflecting perseverance. The spinning toy has four sides with Hebrew letters that form an acronym for nes gadol hayah sham—“a great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the tops have one different letter so that the phrase reads, “a great miracle happened here.”
The Hanukkah story is a tradition-rich tale of perseverance, faith, and dedication. People around the globe honor eight nights each year with latkes, Hebrew dreidels, and most importantly, lighted menorahs.
Taylor recommends visiting sites like www.jewfaq.org for more information about Jewish symbols, or www.tbefargo.org for local holiday events.
Laurie Neill lives in Moorhead with her husband and sons. She would like to wish our Jewish readers Hanukkah Sameach (Happy Hanukkah)!
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