Chanukah cookies

Most people have heard of Chanukah or “the festival of lights” but unless you are Jewish or have Jewish friends, you probably don’t have a clear idea of what it is. Because the name is originally in Hebrew, there are many ways to write it in English including: Chanukah, Chanukkah, Chanuka, Hanukah, Hanukkah, Hanuka and others. One of the most common misconceptions is that because it is close to the important Christian holiday of Christmas, Chanukah is the most important of the Jewish holidays as well. In reality, it is a very minor holiday and has only become so widely known and celebrated because of its proximity to Christmas. Although it is a minor holiday, Chanukah, has gained importance with non-religious (and more religious ones as well, but not in as large of numbers) Jews as a time to bring family together. In reality, this is one of the Jewish holidays that celebrates a miracle that took place thousands of years ago. If you want to learn what this celebration is truly about, here is the story of Chanukah as well as the important information about its traditions.

Boy with Chanukah items

The War

Every year, Chanukah celebrates the miracle at the end of a war (as well as some along the way) in 165 B.C.E. Israel was under the rule of King Antiochus but unlike earlier rulers who allowed the Jews to practice their religion as long as they paid taxes, King Antiochus of the Syrian-Greeks wanted them to change their ways. He ordered them to stop following all traditions, both religious and cultural, including circumcision and celebrating Chanukah. If anyone defied him, they King Antiochus would kill them, usually brutally; his actions gave him the nickname “The Madman.”

Mattathias, a High Priest, stood up to the Greek soldiers briefly before asking his fellow Jews to join him and his sons in rebellion. They then went into the mountains to regroup.  Even though the Greek army had 50,000 trained soldiers, the small 6,000 untrained Jewish soldiers (known as the Maccabees) won which was the first of the miracles.

The Second Miracle

The second miracle (and the one that is more well-known), took place immediately after the battle. When the Maccabees returned to the Holy Temple they discovered that the Greeks had destroyed it. They needed to relight the Menorah but could not find any unopened oil. They finally found a small amount that was only enough to burn for one day but miraculously it lasted for eight days, the time necessary to make more. These two miracles (winning and the oil lasting for eight days) led to the Chanukah celebration which is now one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays.

Oil Menorah

Timing Of Chanukah

Because the second miracle was the oil lasting for eight days that is the amount of time that Chanukah lasts. On the secular calendar, it seems as if this holiday does not have a set day but in reality, it changes every year because like most other Jewish holidays, it falls on a specific date on the Hebrew calendar, not the secular one. It starts on the 25th day of the month Kislev. This means that these are the dates for the following few years:

  • November 27th to December 5th, 2013
  • December 16th to 24th, 2014
  • December 6th to 14th, 2015

Like all Jewish holidays, Hanukah begins at sundown on the first date listed.

Lighting Candles

Chanukah Menorah

The most important tradition associated with Hanukah is lighting the menorah, a special one called a Hanukkiyah that has 9 branches. Traditionally each of the branches holds oil but many reform and conservative Jews use candles instead as it is easy, safer and creates less mess. One important thing about a Hanukkiyah is that although there are nine branches, eight are identical while the ninth is slightly raised. This slightly raised one is the shamash and is the “helper flame” which you use to light the other ones.

On the first night, you light the shamash and then one candle. On the second night, you light the shamash and two candles. This pattern continues until the eighth night when you light all the candles. Each night as you light the candles, you say two special blessings to celebrate this holiday. There is an extra blessing said on the first night, the Shehecheyanu, a blessing said at joyous occasions.


Chanukah presents

Presents were not originally a part of this Jewish holiday. Instead, they became a tradition because of the holiday’s proximity to Christmas which is the main gift-giving holiday for Christians. Now, however, giving gifts as well as the traditional Chanukah gelt is common. (“Gelt” is Yiddish for “money.”) The gelt is sometimes real money but in many cases it is chocolate coins.

The Dreidel

One of the things that sets Hanukkah apart from other Jewish holidays is playing dreidel. Its name in Hebrew is “s’vivon” and this is a spinning top. It has four sides on each side is a Hebrew letter standing for words in the Hebrew phrase meaning “a great miracle happened there.” Dreidels in Israel are slightly different, with one of the letters changing so the meaning becomes “a great miracle happened here.” In Israel the letters on the dreidel are “nun”, “gimel”, “hay” and “pay” while in the rest of the world they are “nun”, “gimel”, “hay” and “shin.”

Dreidel and Gelt

The game has a specific set of rules where each letter you land on determines what you do. Everyone gets an amount of coins (or chocolate gelt, poker chips, candies, etc.) and puts a specific amount in a center pile (usually one or two). They then take turns spinning the dreidel. If you land on “nun” you do nothing. If you land on “gimel” you win everything in the center. When the center pile is empty, everyone must put one or two in again. If you land on “hay” you get half the center pile and if you land on “shin” (or “pay” in Israel) you put some coins in the center (usually one or two). When you run out of coins, you lose and the last person wins.  



The most traditional food eaten during Chanukah is latkes, commonly referred to in English as potato pancakes. They are fried pancakes made from potato and onion and traditionally served with applesauce. This fried food became traditionally because you cook it in oil and Chanukah celebrates the miracle of oil.