Four year old boy with grandfather and father lighting Hanukkah menorah

We often think of Hanukkah with latkes and dreidels, but this holiday of lights represents a significant day in the history of Judaism. Read on to learn more about it, and how people worldwide still celebrate it today.

What is the History of Hanukkah?

What is Hanukkah? Festival of lights

Photo by Lavi Perchik on Unsplash

The word Hanukkah means “dedication“, which is fitting since Hanukkah represents a time in history when the Jewish people in Jerusalem restored the Second Temple in 168 BC. At that time in history, King Antiochus IV of Syria was in charge of Israel. He outlawed the Jewish faith and desecrated the temple, converting it to a temple of Zeus and other Greek gods. So the Maccabees, a group of Jewish rebels, decided to fight back.

Despite the strength of the opposing army, Judas Maccabee and his brothers led a successful rebellion that drove the Syrians out of Israel. The Hebrew people then reclaimed the land and made cleansing the temple a top priority.

So even though Hanukkah is prominently celebrated as a Festival of Lights, it also marks a time of political resilience in Israel’s history.

What is the Significance of the Menorah?

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The menorah has served as a lampstand for people in the Hebrew faith since the days of Moses. Traditionally, it only has six side branches, and a larger one in the middle. These represented the seven days of creation and served as a symbol for the Jewish people. So the Maccabees would have been using one as they began cleansing the temple.

But they had a problem: there was only enough oil to keep the light on for one night. But against all odds, the flames continued to burn for eight days and nights, which was long enough to restore the temple to its former glory. Today, long after the rededication of the Second Temple, most menorahs now consist of nine candle shafts and are called chanukkia. There are eight for each of the eight days, and a ninth to hold the shamash (Hebrew for helper). The shamash lights the other eight candles.

What are some traditional Hanukkah Foods?

Foods fried in oil, usually olive oil, are a hallmark of Hanukkah, as it’s a way to commemorate the oil that burned for eight days.

Sufganiyot doughnuts for Hanukkah

Photo by Elisheva Gohar on Unsplash

Like other popular holidays, Hanukkah has its own set of traditional foods that are enjoyed by people all over the world. Common foods include Latkes (potato pancakes), Kugel (egg noodle casserole), Gelt (chocolate coins), Sufganiyah (jelly-filled donuts), and brisket.

What Are Some Other Hanukkah Traditions?

– Gelt: Traditionally, the Jewish people gifted money (or “gelt” in Yiddish) to teachers, homeless people, children and the poor. Today, children trade chocolate coins for eating and playing the dreidel game.

– Dreidel Game: Dreidels are wooden spinning tops with Hebrew letters on four sides. The dreidel game is a gambling game; players lose or win gelt depending on the letter that the dreidel stops on. The four Hebrew letters are Nun (take nothing), Gimel (take all), Hey (take half), and Shin (put one in).

– Gifts: In addition to gelt, many people give gifts to their family members each night of Hanukkah. Some families give gifts each of the eight nights while some families will opt for one larger gift instead. The gift-giving part of Hanukkah didn’t really come about until the 1920s, so it’s not necessarily part of all Hanukkah celebrations worldwide.

No matter your upbringing, Hanukkah serves as a fun and interactive way to bring people together and celebrate. Find some creative recipes and start saving up for gifts to give to your loved ones. Check out our other article on Hanukkah Traditions for more creative ideas on how to spend your Hanukkah!

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