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Since 1979 • February-March 2024 • Circulation 5000

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The Customs of Chanukah

A menorah with all of its candles lit up. Paula E. Kirman

Chanukah is a winter festival celebrated by Jewish people around the world. This year, it begins at sundown on December 20 and ends at sundown on December 28 (on the Lunar calendar, days are determined by daylight).

The history of the holiday is found in the Book of Maccabees, which is part of the Apocrypha -a series of Biblical-era texts included in Catholic Bibles but not Protestant or Jewish ones.

Here is a quick summary of Chanukah: the ancient Syrians were trying to commit ethnocide by extinguishing Jewish religious practices. However, the Jewish people were triumphant and won back the Temple Mount, which had been defiled and needed to be restored back to a holy place. There was only one little jar of olive oil that remained, and it had to last until more oil could be acquired. It took eight days during which the oil miraculously lasted.

As a result, here are the customs of Chanukah:

  • It lasts for eight days.
  • It involves the consumption of oily foods, particularly latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).
  • A candle is lit on each night of Chanukah on a candelabra called a menorah until all nine candles are glowing. There is one candle for each day that are lit with a middle candle, called a shammash.
  • We play the dreidel game. A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top. On each side of the dreidel is a Hebrew letter which together represent the sentence, “a great miracle happened there.” During the game, we gamble for chocolate coins (gelt). How much gelt is won or lost depends on which side the dreidel lands after it stops spinning.
  • Although gifts are not the focus of Chanukah, it is common to give small gifts on each night of the holiday, especially to the children.

Chanukah is also known as the “Festival of Lights.” This is because of the light kept alive by that little bit of olive oil and the modern day lighting of the menorah. It also sounds a lot better than the “Festival of Oil.” However, after eating a good helping of deep-fried potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts, it certainly seems that way!

This is often the darkest time of year, both physically (as in reduced hours of daylight) and emotionally (holiday time can be depressing for many). A holiday about light and triumph is spiritually uplifting and comes at the perfect time. May your holidays, whatever you celebrate, be filled with light.

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