How-To Hanukkah

What's This All About??

Version 1: It's All About the Temple

So what happened?

  • 4th Century BCE- Alexander (the Great, not Hamilton) conquers Near East, including Israel. He dies, and the Greek empire splits. Israel comes under Seleucid control.
  • 167 BCE- King Antiochus forces the people to Hellenize. Jewish rituals are outlawed. No Sabbath observance. No circumcision. Instead, worship Greek gods and sacrifice pigs. Some Jew say cool and assimilate, others refuse and are martyred.
  • Greeks show up in the village of Modi'in and demand a pig be sacrificed in the Temple. The priest Mattathias is furious and begins a guerrilla war with his 5 sons. After Mattathias dies, his son Judah the Maccabee leads the group to victory (for now). They go to Jerusalem and rededicate the Temple.

"The most frequent translation of Hanukkah is 'dedication'-- that is, we remember the rededication of the temple. According to some traditions, the Maccabees built a new altar and/or menorah since the old ones were profaned by the Syrians and thus Hanukkah marks the dedication specifically of these objects in the temple. Some commentators play on the Hebrew word by dividing it in half: hanu/kkah -- that is, the rested (hanu) on the 25th day (the numerical values of k and h equal 25). The Maccabees ceased fighting on the 25th of Kislev, and thus Hanukkah marks their victory over the Syrians."

-- Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Version 2: It's All About the Oil

מַאי חֲנוּכָּה? דְּתָנוּ רַבָּנַן: בְּכ״ה בְּכִסְלֵיו יוֹמֵי דַחֲנוּכָּה תְּמָנְיָא אִינּוּן דְּלָא לְמִסְפַּד בְּהוֹן וּדְלָא לְהִתְעַנּוֹת בְּהוֹן. שֶׁכְּשֶׁנִּכְנְסוּ יְווֹנִים לַהֵיכָל טִמְּאוּ כׇּל הַשְּׁמָנִים שֶׁבַּהֵיכָל. וּכְשֶׁגָּבְרָה מַלְכוּת בֵּית חַשְׁמוֹנַאי וְנִצְּחוּם, בָּדְקוּ וְלֹא מָצְאוּ אֶלָּא פַּךְ אֶחָד שֶׁל שֶׁמֶן שֶׁהָיָה מוּנָּח בְּחוֹתָמוֹ שֶׁל כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל, וְלֹא הָיָה בּוֹ אֶלָּא לְהַדְלִיק יוֹם אֶחָד. נַעֲשָׂה בּוֹ נֵס וְהִדְלִיקוּ מִמֶּנּוּ שְׁמוֹנָה יָמִים. לְשָׁנָה אַחֶרֶת קְבָעוּם וַעֲשָׂאוּם יָמִים טוֹבִים בְּהַלֵּל וְהוֹדָאָה.
The Gemara asks: What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Taanit: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

What do we do with it now?

Light Candles! / Make the Miracle Known/ Pirsum HaNes/ פרסום הנס

מִצְוַת נֵר חֲנֻכָּה מִצְוָה חֲבִיבָה הִיא עַד מְאֹד וְצָרִיךְ אָדָם לְהִזָּהֵר בָּהּ כְּדֵי לְהוֹדִיעַ הַנֵּס וּלְהוֹסִיף בְּשֶׁבַח הָאֵל וְהוֹדָיָה לוֹ עַל הַנִּסִּים שֶׁעָשָׂה לָנוּ. אֲפִלּוּ אֵין לוֹ מַה יֹּאכַל אֶלָּא מִן הַצְּדָקָה שׁוֹאֵל אוֹ מוֹכֵר כְּסוּתוֹ וְלוֹקֵחַ שֶׁמֶן וְנֵרוֹת וּמַדְלִיק:
The precept of lighting the Hanukkah lamp is exceedingly precious, and one should carefully observe it in order to acclaim the miracle, ever praising and thanking God for the miracles which he has performed for us. Even if one has nothing to eat except what he gets from charity, he should borrow, or sell his garment, to buy oil and lamps and light them.

Some nitty gritty:

  • Your Menorah -- technically a Hanukkiah -- can use candles or oil. You're meant to enjoy the light, not use it to see by, so you can certainly have other lights on.
  • Fill the Hanukkiah from right to left, and light from left to right using the shamash or helper candle.
  • It's best to light shortly after sunset and have the Hanukkiah where other people in your house-- or passerby-- can see it.
  • We mostly follow the practices of Beit Hillel-- the house of Hillel-- that says you start with 1 candle and add 1 each night until the 8th night. There's also Beit Shamai-- the house of Shamai-- that says you start with 8 candles and go down to 1!
  • On Shabbat light Shabbat candles after Hanukkah candles

Change up Your Daily Prayers

For all 8 days of Hanukkah, the words below are added into the gratitude section of the Amidah-- the 3 times a day recited standing prayer. The translation below is from Kol Haneshamah, the Reconstructionist Siddur

Other Traditions