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Jewish Hanukkah Traditions

Ankana Dey Choudhury Mar 3, 2020
The joy of spending festivals with all your family members around you is 'inégalée'. Moreover, it is the best time to initiate the young ones into the various traditions and cultural antecedents of a race and their multi-layered significations in building up a society.
"Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening's forehead o'er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth." ~ Emma Lazarus, "The Feast of Lights".
Hanukkah, the beautiful Jewish festival, illuminates our life and fills it with the warmth of light for eight inebriating days. Beginning every year on the Kaf Hey date or 25th of the month of Kislev of the lunar Hebrew calendar, this jubilant fête of lights corresponds with the months of November-December of the Gregorian calendar.
Like every festival in the world, Hanukkah too, has its own set of traditions and customs and what better way exists to celebrate these luminous days than to know the allusions behind each and every Hanukkah tradition.

Traditions of Hanukkah

A resplendent tale is intricately woven around each one of the Hanukkah traditions, making them rich in cultural and religious significance, replete with the age-old cliché of good conquering evil. Following are some customs of Hanukkah, covering all the colorful facets of the fete.

Lighting the Menorah

"On Hanukkah, we light the candles each and every night
Starting with just one little candle, till all are shining bright
Don't let the lights go out
The story goes on and on
A miracle to light the night, and keep our people strong." ~ From Light the Night by  Caroline Figiel and Danny Jones.
The story of the menorah lighting tradition can be traced back to year 165 BC. When Antiochus IV Epiphanes, became the head of the Seleucid Empire in 175 BC, he started his zealous expeditions to bring about reign of Hellenization over his domain and the surrounding areas.
As a part of this savage campaign, in 168 BC, to spread the worship of Greek Gods and Goddesses, he condemned the Holy Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem was impounded and consecrated to the worship of the Greek God Zeus.
In the following year, common Jewish rituals such as circumcision, Sabbaths, and sacrifices or korbanot of doves, wine, incense, and grain were illegalized. The emperor took extreme steps against the Jews by further criminalizing the possession of Jewish scriptures or the Torah, and even sacrificed animals such as pigs on them, which as per Judaism is a sin.
Initially, this scared the Jews and they succumbed to the tortures of the Greek soldiers. However, a revolting feeling had by then started to brew among the Jews. One day, in the hamlet of Modiin, not far from Jerusalem, a Greek military official ordered the dwellers of the town to humbly accept Zeus as their supreme God and devour on pork.
He even went on to coerce Mattathias the Hasmonean, the village Jewish High Priest, to participate in the ceremony. When Mattathias declined, a second villager came up and extended himself to eat the meat instead. This incensed the High Priest immensely and he killed both the Jew and officer then and there, with his steel.
After that Mattathias took his five sons and hid themselves in the nearby forested mountains of Judah, where they met several other Jews, all geared up to revolt against the Hellenistic Selucids. It was therefore that in 165 BC, Mattathias' son Judah Maccabee led an army of Jewish rebels who triumphed over the Syrian soldiers.
They then went to their shrine or the Second Temple of ancient Israel and were disheartened to see its derelict condition. Everything there lay ruined and destroyed including the golden menorah or Chanukiyah, as the Israelis call it. So, they cleaned and mended everything.
Finally they started to seek oil to light the menorah and could find only a small jug of olive oil. This oil was enough to keep the menorah burning for only a single day, but to everyone's amazement the lights kept blazing for eight long days, thus giving them enough time to gather more oil.
It was this dedication ceremony that is still celebrated by Jews all over the world even today.
It is also believed that all the candles lighted during Hanukkah must keep blazing for an hour more from the time that the stars come out. Since it begins on the darkest night in the month of Kislev, four days before the new moon night, it is an integral tradition of Hanukkah to place the menorah near a window in order to share the light and warmth with anybody who comes into the vicinity of the house.
It is interesting to note that originally the menorah is only a candelabrum with 7 branches. It is the chanukiyah that has 9 branches and is used during the celebrations of hanukkah or Chanukkah. Also the Jewish Code of Law states that a menorah can be a maximum of 360 inches high.

The Dreidel Game

"Watch the dreidel spin, spin, spin
It will land on nun, gimel hey or shin
Play it with your friends and win, win, win
Chanukkah dreidels spin, spin, spin" ~ Traditional Children's Song.
The Israeli sevivon or a dreidel is a spinning top with four sides with a Hebrew alphabet etched on each side. A derivation of the Yiddish word drehen which means to turn, the dreidel game was devised by the Jewish rabbis during the Hellenistic rule of Antiochus.
When studying of the Torah was prohibited by the Greeks, preceding the Maccabean mutiny, the religious followers of Judaism started to read their scriptures surreptitiously. The priests too held clandestine underground classes.
However, in order to keep Greek suspicion at bay, they placed a few children at the entrances of these hubs. In case any Greek patrols arrived, they left on seeing the children carrying on with games and merriment, abandoning their religious rituals. Thus, this game went on to become closely associated with Hanukkah.
The letters on the top Nes Gadol Haya Sham, means "A Miracle Happened There" in English. However, in Israel the fourth letter shin is replaced by a peh which makes the saying Nes Gadol Haya Po or "A Great Miracle Happened Here".
In the game basically, a fixed amount of candies and real or chocolate coins are donated by each participant in a purse called the kupah. Some candies are also kept in reserve by each player. Next, the top is spun individually by every participant one by one. With every turn the dreidel rests revealing a letter to indicate the fate of the player.
In this, the Nun or nisht means the player gets nothing, Gimmel or gantz means the player gets the entire deposit in the kupah, Heh meaning halb or half entitles the player to take half of the deposit and finally Shin standing for shtel" indicates that the player will have to "put in" a few pieces, since Peh in Israeli means to pay.
Anyone who finishes off his reserve is out in case his neighbors refuse to loan him a few pieces and in the end the person who manages to win the entire booty wins the game!

Hanukkah Food Traditions

Like every other festival in the world, Hanukkah celebrations come with its own set of food traditions. The following are some of the Jewish Hanukkah traditions related to feasting.

Potato Latkes

"Take a potato, pat pat pat.
Roll it and make it flat flat flat.
Fry it in a pan with fat fat fat
Chanukkah latkes just like that." ~ Traditional Children's Song.
Latkes are potato pancakes, called levivah in Hebrew, consumed mostly by Ashkenazi Jews during Hanukkah. The oil which is used to fry the levivot or numerous latkes, is reminiscent and symbolic of the oil that kept the menorah ablaze for eight miraculous days.
Legend has it that the Maccabbees fed themselves on vegetable, fruit, and cheese latkes during the war but not potato ones as potatoes were unknown in that part of the world until the 16th century introduced from Peru and Bolivia.
The modern-day pancakes are made, however by mixing grated potatoes, eggs, onions, and flour together and then sautéing them in oil. When they turn golden brown, they are served piping hot dripping with apple sauce or sour cream.

Sufganiyah - Jelly Donut

"It's the circle of life, and it moves us all, through despair and hope, through faith and love, till we find our place, on the path unwinding." ~ Elton John.
Mirroring the sentiments of the quote, the round shape of the jelly filled delights, called sufganiyah, are said to be symbolic of the circle of life. It also is said to have the responsibility of inspiring people to undertake the profound task of looking into their souls once they reach the central jelly filling.
These spongy donuts, called ponchkes in Yiddish, are consumed when warm. Devoid of the hole, unlike regular donuts, sufganyot are fried and thus, a part of the traditions commemorating the holy oil. They are eaten from the week preceding Hanukkah and throughout the celebration week.
Traditionally, these Israeli treats were made by sticking two jelly filled, round dough pieces together and then frying them. Nowadays, an easier method of frying solid balls dough and then injecting jelly into them with a baker's syringe is followed. These treats are topped with fine sugar and cinnamon. Other than the common jelly, donuts filled with the Spanish dulce de leche are also prepared nowadays.

Cheese Blintzes and Sour Cream

"The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." ~ G. K. Chesterton.
Very much like the saying, the Hanukkah tradition of eating dairy or the tale behind it, is not very widely recounted. However, consumption of dairy products is one of the most important Jewish Hanukkah traditions.
The story that entwines dairy products and Hanukkah is believed to be fictitious by many, given its numerous historical discrepancies and anachronisms, which mind you appears to be intentionally incorporated.
Stated in the apocryphal Book of Judith, identified in the Septuagint or the Greek Version of the Hebrew Bible, the tale talks about the times when Nebuchadnezzar, "who reigned over the Assyrians at Nineveh", was the emperor of Babylonia in the 7th-8th century BC.
Apparently, Nebuchadnezzar, in an effort to harness the rebel nations, sent his general, Holofernes, who in turn besieged Bethulia. Bethulia was a strategic entry point to Jerusalem. It is at this point that another general, Achior forewarned Holofernes about the tricky nature adopted by Jews to protect their motherland.
However, Holofernes continued with his mission and used excruciatingly torturous methods to humble the Jews into accepting Nebuchadnezzar as the only god. When the Jewish people got tired of the repeated onslaughts of attacks, they decided to succumb.
It was at this point that a widow called Yehudit or Judith persuaded the people to wait for another 5 days before ceding. This beautiful widow then took off her mourning robes, dressed attractively and went to the general's cantonment. It was on the fourth day, that the general, overcome by her beauty, summoned her into his tent.
Once there, Judith kept feeding Holofernes with salty cheesecakes and goblet after goblet of wine, all the while telling him how successful his mission was about to become. Satiated and drunk, when the general fell on the floor, she quickly slashed off his head and returned to Bethulia with it in a basket.
Next morning, when the Jews attacked the Assyrians, the soldiers found their dead general and were thus defeated among the disorganized chaos.
Thus, dairy products like cheese blintzes and sour cream became inevitably linked to Hanukkah. Also as mentioned before, the Maccabbees did eat cheese latkes in the war front.

Hanukkah Gift Traditions

Gifts are undeniably an integral part of any festival. Even though some families consider tzedakah or alms to the underprivileged as the most heartwarming gift that can be given, the following are the most commonly given presents during Hanukkah.


According to Hanukkah traditions, giving 'gelt' or money as gifts to children is customary.
Generally coins, either chocolate or real are gifted and not notes, for the dreidel game. Golden in color, Hanukkah gelts usually have a menorah etched on them. These are now available widely in the market.

The Star of David Accessories

The Star of David is a recognized Jewish symbol which can be given as gifts during Hanukkah.
The symbol is widely available in the form of pendants or on greeting cards. Children can also make the symbol with aluminum foil as a part of outdoor Hanukkah decorations and gift it to friends.
Folk lore has it that the Star of David is a representation of the Shield of David, the Israeli warrior who went on to become a king. It is believed that in order to economize the use of metal, a basic framework of two interlocked triangles were made with a cavity in the center.
Then leather was used to cover the frame. Even though no absolute proof exists to vouch for the credibility of the account, it is believed that a menorah was engraved on this shield used by David during battles.
Now that you know all the Jewish Hanukkah traditions and all the stories behind them, here's to your celebrating of the bright festival whole-heartedly, surrounded by the Hanukkah hues of white and blue, swaying with the first strains of "Baruch atta Adonai, eloheinu melech a'olam - Blessed are you Lord God, king of the universe", as the blessed days descend upon us.