Chanukah begins at sundown, Wednesday, December 1 this year, and continues for eight days. Jewish holidays are based on a lunar calendar and appear, therefore on different dates every year. Whether you spell it Hanukah or Chanukah, it’s a time for games, nuts and dreidels, Chanukah gelt, and latkes.
This is a happy holiday that commemorates the victory of Judah the Maccabee over the Seleucid Greeks in 165 B.C.E., and the subsequent cleansing and dedication (chanukah) of the Temple.
A small vial of oil gave illumination by burning for eight days, and this is one reason for the lighting of eight candles in a menorah, one each night of the holiday.
Celebrants enjoy the holiday by eating lingering over meals while telling stories and singing songs. Latkes (potato pancakes) are one of the best known traditional dishes. In Israel, everyone enjoys freshly baked Sufganiyot, which are deep fried doughnuts with a jelly center, covered with powdered sugar (Recipes follow the article).
A menorah (candelabra) of silver, to reflect the shining candle light, is placed in a conspicuous location, so that everyone can see it. Each of the eight lights must stand in an even, straight row, as no day of Chanukah is superior to another. Only the shamash, the candle used to kindle and guard the others, is placed on a higher level. In Israel, the Chanukah menorah is called a chanukiah, to differentiate it from any other menorah. Chanukah candles are lit before the Sabbath candles on Friday night, and after the close of the Sabbath on Saturday night. Today, each chanukiah is different from the other, and some are quite artistic.
The candles should be lit before any member of the family goes to sleep, so that even the youngest can participate. Although candles are placed on the right side of the chanukiah, they are lit from the left, by any member of the family, while blessings and prayers are recited. Each night, new candles are lit. One of the prayers reminds people that these are special, holy candles, and not to be used for illumination. The candles should last for at least 30 minutes after sunset.
Every evening, the shamash is lit first, and then used to light the others, depending on how many nights of Chanukah are being celebrated. By the end of the eight days, all the candles are burning.
Children are often given gelt (chocolate coins covered in gold foil) to remind them to contribute to charity at Chanukah, so that others may share in their happiness. They play a game called dreidel, or sevivon in Hebrew, spinning a top.
It is not part of the tradition to exchange gifts, but some American families might react to the competition of Christmas by exchanging presents, decorating the house, and making Chanukah a truly special celebration.
Here are some of the prayers said at candle-lighting.
First Night: In the beginning, “God said, ‘Let There Be Light.'” This is not only physical light but also the mandate of all creation so that the Divine Light will shine throughout the world.
Second Night: At Creation, God made the “two great lights,” the sun and the moon. The sun is constant; every day the same big fiery ball appears in the sky. But the moon is always going through changes. Even as we grow and change, we must retain our consistency. Just as the oil burning in the chanukiah spreads light, the soul illuminates the world in the performance of good deeds. Miraculously, in spite of the best efforts of the oppressors, one cruse of pure oil remained in the Temple and was enough to spread light throughout the world.
Fourth Night: Sabbath candles are lit before dark, inside the home. By contrast, Chanukah’s candles send light into the darkness of the night, and are placed near a window facing out into the street.
Fifth Night: “A mitzvah (good deed) is compared to a candle and the Torah is light.” Like the Chanukah candles, we are meant to add light every day.
Sixth Night: The lights of the Chanukah menorah are more than simply a reminder of ancient miracles, they are meant to provide inspiration and illumination in our contemporary daily lives.
Seventh Night: There is a Talmudic statement: “We are day workers.” Day means light. Our task is to spread light, to illuminate the world with the light of goodness. Evil and darkness do not get swept out with a broom. By creating more light, the night and darkness will disappear by themselves.
Eighth Night: Although it commemorates the kindling of the Temple’s Menorah which had only seven branches, the Chanukiah/Menorah has eight lights. Symbolically, ‘seven’ is associated with the natural world, created in six days and completed with God’s rest on the Sabbath.
‘Eight’ represents the infinite and supernatural, in contrast to the finite and natural. The seven-lamp Menorah illuminated the natural world, but Chanukah goes even beyond worldly limitations.
Today, there are modern adaptations such as electric menorahs, very elaborately created, artistic dreidels, worthy of being collectors’ items, and commercially prepared mixes for making latkes. Purists and more traditionally minded people will tell you that nothing beats the sight of children’s faces at the lighting of a candle each night, or the spinning of an ancient wooden dreidel. And as for making latkes from scratch, what’s a good old-fashioned potato latke, without a remnant of someone’s knuckle from shredding those spuds on a grater?
Because of the significance of oil in the story of Chanukah, it is traditional to serve foods cooked in oil.
- 6 potatoes, peeled
- 1 small onion, grated
- 3 eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- oil for frying
Grate potatoes into cold water (prevents discoloration). Strain, and press out all excess liquid. Blend in remaining ingredients. Heat oil in skillet, until hot. Drop by tablespoons into skillet, frying until brown and crisp on both sides. Turn only once. Drain on paper towels. Serve with applesauce, sour cream or yogurt. May be frozen. Place in preheated 400º F oven for 5 to 10 minutes. Recipe may be doubled.
Sufganiyot (Jelly Doughnuts)
- 2 1/2 cups self-rising flour
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 cups sour cream
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/4 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- oil for frying
- Plum or strawberry preserves.
Combine all ingredients in mixing bowl. Batter will be soft. Drop by tablespoonful into hot oil and fry, turning once. Drain on absorbent paper. When cool enough to handle, poke a tiny hole in one end, and insert jam. Roll in powdered or granulated sugar. Serve warm.