You might associate Hanukkah with the lighting of the menorah, chocolate coins, or perhaps the spinning dreidel. There’s a lot more to Hanukkah than just chocolate and dreidels, however — so let’s dive into the story behind the beloved Jewish holiday.
Hanukkah is a festive, eight-day-long celebration that typically begins at sundown on a day in December, depending on the Hebrew calendar for each year. So how did it all begin?
It all started with a violent rebellion
That’s right — unfortunately, the origins of what is now such a magical holiday were a little less than peaceful. Back in the year 200 B.C., the Land of Israel (also known as Judea) was under the rule of Antiochus III, the Seleucid King of Syria. During his reign, the Jews living in his kingdom were permitted to practice their own religion — that is, until his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes came along. Antiochus IV ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods, banning the Jewish religion and eventually destroying Jerusalem’s holy temple via a bloody massacre. Things did become less brutal, but not before the Jews had their say. The Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons led a large (and extremely effective) rebellion against Antiochus. Within two years, the Syrians had been driven out of Jerusalem entirely and the temple’s altar had been restored. As a symbol of knowledge and creation, the altar’s menorah (a sacred candelabrum with seven branches) was lit, meant to burn each night.
Here’s where the true miracle comes in. In order for the menorah to continue burning, it required a specific amount of pure olive oil — much more than what they used. However, according to the story, a flask was discovered with only enough olive oil for one day of burning, although it had already burned for a full eight days. In honor of this miracle, the Jewish sages declared an eight-day festival, leading to the Hanukkah celebration that we now know and love.
The candles aren’t for families, but for passersby
Those beautiful menorahs you see twinkling in your neighbors’ windowsills? They’re actually there for you, as a reminder of the Hanukkah miracle and the triumph of the few over the many. For this reason, most lamps are placed in front of a large window or door facing the street.
As custom goes, most people light their menorahs at sundown, and the candles are meant to continue burning for at least half an hour after it gets dark. One candle is lit for each night of the eight-day holiday (the start of each year's Hanukkah celebration depends on the Hebrew calendar), along with an extra light called a shamash [servant] that’s typically located either higher, lower, or off to the side of the rest. Sometimes the shamash is used to light the other candles, and sometimes it’s the last to be lit, depending on the family.
Traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in oil
If you’ve ever tried traditional Hanukkah delicacies like the traditional fried potato pancakes, or latkes, you already know why we’re in love with this holiday. What you might not know? Customary Hanukkah feasts involve foods fried in olive oil, as a way to honor the tiny bit of oil that kept the ancient temple’s menorah burning for a full eight days. Besides latkes, sweet jam-filled donuts called sufganiyot and round fritters called bimuelos are also served. Not to mention the Hanukkah gold that’s usually given to young children: small chocolate 'coins' wrapped in gold foil.
The holiday was originally translated as 'Chanukah'
Originally written in Hebrew, the holiday was translated as 'Chanukah' in English. When pronounced correctly, 'ch' sounds more like an 'h' which is where we get Hanukkah. We don’t know where the extra 'k' comes from.
Since many Jewish holidays are defined by holiday meals, the lighting of candles, and the absence of work and school, Hanukkah is actually a pretty minor holiday by comparison. Unlike Sabbath holidays, there are no religious restrictions on work (eight days off would be nice, though!). That being said, Hanukkah remains an important symbol of Jewish identity in the 21st century. For Jewish people around the world, the holiday represents resistance, freedom, and national liberation. Since the 20th century, Jewish families have traditionally given additional gifts to children during Hanukkah, since the dates overlap with the holiday season.
For Jewish families around the world, Hanukkah is sure to be a memorable week filled with lots of light, prayer, gifts, and feasting. If you want to explore Israeli language and culture further, why not check out Mango Languages's Hebrew (Modern) course? We’ve got all the culture and grammar insights you need to take a dive into the language’s unique and fascinating history. Whether your family celebrates Hanukkah or a different holiday during this season, it never hurts to add a little language learning to the festivities.
With Mango Languages, you can try a lesson in any of our language courses for free! Click below to start learning modern Hebrew.
Did you learn anything new about Hanukkah? Whether you're celebrating Hanukkah or a different holiday, what is your favorite part of the winter holiday season?