Menorahs, Maccabees and more: Hanukkah explained

The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah began on Sunday evening, and you may have noticed your friends sharing pictures and videos of their Hanukkah festivities.

Hanukkah is a joyous celebration, and a popular Jewish festival. It is my kids’ favorite holiday, and for good reason! Who doesn’t love eight days of food, family and gifts?

Hanukkah is also one of the few Jewish observances those who aren’t Jewish (or connected to Judaism in some way) are familiar with, yet, despite the popularity of the holiday, many do not understand the full meaning and history behind Hanukkah.

As a Jew, and a mom, who cares about educating the world about Judaism, in hopes this might make others more tolerant and prevent antisemitism, I wanted to write this post to explain a bit more about Hanukkah.

What Is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah, like most Jewish holidays, commemorates a time when the Jewish people were threatened and persecuted for their way of life, and how they rose up to defeat their oppressors.

Specifically, the Hanukkah story takes place about 160 years Before the Common Era (B.C.E). During this time, the Jews of Judea (the land now known as Israel and Palestine), were ruled by King Antiochus of the Seleucid Empire. King Antiochus wanted the Jews to forgo their way of life and assimilate to the ways of the Syrian Greeks.

As you can imagine, the Jewish people were not happy under this regime, and some decided to fight back. The most known figure in this revolt was a man by the name of Judah, later known as Judah The Maccabee, or Judah The Hammer. Judah and his followers (known as the Maccabees) fought the Syrian Greeks, and succeeded in reclaiming the Temple of Jerusalem. The Temple was cleaned and rededicated to Jewish worship.

Why Is Hanukkah Celebrated For Eight Nights?

Legend has it that when Judah and his followers were restoring the Temple, they found only a small portion of oil to use for the lighting of the menorah, the seven-branched candelabra which is still found at most synagogues today (I will get to the difference between a year-round menorah and Hanukkah menorah later). The Jewish people thought the oil would only enable the menorah to burn for one night, yet, by some miracle, the oil lasted eight nights. To commemorate this miracle, Jews light candles (or use an oil menorah) for eight nights, starting with one candle for the first night and adding another candle for each consecutive night.

Why Are There Nine Branches On The Hanukkah Menorah?

As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, during Hanukkah, Jews light a special menorah called a Hanukkiah. This menorah has nine branches instead of seven. Why nine if Hanukkah is eight nights? The “extra” candle is the shamash, whose purpose is to serve as the lighter for the other candles.

What’s With All The Fried Food?

It’s all about the oil, baby! The miracle of the oil lasting eight days is celebrated by eating lots of fried foods. Most likely you are familiar with latkes (potato pancakes), but there are numerous other fried foods from Jewish communities around the world. The Jewish Diaspora experience is vast and diverse.

Are Presents Important?

If you asked my kids, they would say, “yes!” However, gift giving is not a traditional Hanukkah custom. For Jews living in predominantly Christian countries the proximity to Christmas has influenced much about how Hanukkah is celebrated. In fact, I recently learned that in Israel it is much more common for Jewish children to receive small monetary gifts (gelt) each night, as opposed to the toys, games and other items American Jews give their kids.

Many Jewish families choose to avoid gifts on Hanukkah, while others go all out. I personally fall somewhere in the middle.

Am I Spelling Hanukkah Right?

The answer is, yes … and no. You see, Hanukkah is a Hebrew word, so unless you are spelling it out with Hebrew letters, there is no real “right” way to spell Hanukkah. You could spell it Hannukah, Chanukah, Hanukah, or Channukah, and be correct. I personally like using a “CH” in my spelling, but in the interest of SEO, I choose to use the most popular spelling, Hanukkah, here and on my social media pages.

Why Does Hanukkah Start On Different Day Every Year?

All Jewish observance, including that of Hanukkah, is based around customs and rituals dating back thousands of years. Jews follow a lunar-based calendar that is rooted in our history in the land of Israel. Hanukkah begin every year on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which coincides with varying dates on the Gregorian calendar.

As A Non-Jew How Can I Support My Jewish Friends This Hanukkah?

If you read this post, you’re off to a good start. Take it further, by educating yourself on the Hanukkah story and learning more about how and why Jews celebrate this holiday. You may also wish to attend menorah lightings that are open to the public, or accepting an invite to share Hanukkah in someone’s home.

Finally, and I will speak for myself here, please do not try and erase Hanukkah’s connection to Jewish history in Israel or twist it into something else. While there’s always room for interpretation, this is for Jewish people to decide, not others. Fundamentally, Hanukkah is about fighting for the Jewish right to observe freely in the home of our ancient Temple.

For more about Hanukkah, check out my previous explainer post.

And, if you have any other questions, feel free to post them in the comments.

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