History of Hanukkah

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Hanukkah, also known as the “Festival of Lights” is an eight-day Jewish holiday beginning on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, which may fall anytime from late November to late December.

According to Jewish tradition, Hanukkah commemorates the dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews victory over the Syrians in 165 BCE. Before then, Antiochus, the Greek King of Syria outlawed Jewish traditions and ordered people to worship Greek Gods. In 168 BCE, the holy temple was seized and dedicated to worshiping Zeus.

Many Jews were angry at this and decided to fight back.

Fighting started in the village of Modiin, near Jerusalem. A Greek officer and his soldiers assembled the villagers, asking them to bow to an idol and eat the flesh of a pig, which are activities forbidden to Jews. The officer asked a Jewish High Priest, Mattathias, to take part in the ceremony. Mattathias refused, and another villager stepped forward and offered to do it instead. Outraged, Mattathias was took out his sword and killed him and the officer. Mattathias' five sons and the villagers then attacked and killed the soldiers. Mattathias' family went into hiding in the nearby mountains, where many other Jews who wanted to fight the Greeks joined them. They attacked the Greek soldiers whenever possible.

Judah Maccabee, one of Mattathias' sons and his soldiers went into the Temple, and were sad to see many things were missing or broken, including the golden menorah. The soldiers cleaned and repaired the Temple, and when they were finished, they decided to have a ceremony. For the celebration, the Judah wanted to light the menorah. They looked everywhere for oil, and found a small flask that contained only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. This gave them enough time to obtain new oil to keep the menorah lit. Today Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days by lighting candles in a menorah every night, as a way to commemorate the eight-day miracle.

Hanukkah Traditions

  • Menorah - The seven-pronged candelabrum is burned for eight days to commemorate the eight-day miracle of the burning oil.
  • Fried Food - Fried foods are eaten at this time because it reminds Jews of the miracle of the oil burning for eight days. Potato pancakes are often eaten during this time of the year.
  • Dairy- Dairy is often eaten this time of the year to commemorate the story of Yehudit. Yehudit was a woman who saved her village from the Syrians, who were holding the villagers under siege by starving the Jews so they would surrender. She went to the governor of the Syrians troops and brought him cheese and wine. When the governor got drunk and collapsed on the floor, Yehudit took his sword and beheaded him. She brought his head back to her town in a basket. The next morning the Jews began attacking the Syrian troops. When the Syrians ran to the governor and found him on the ground beheaded, they got scared and fled. In memory of this story, it has become a tradition to eat dairy food on Hanukkah.
  • Dreidel – Playing the dreidel[1] is a tradition that came about during the oppression of Antiochus. The study of the Torah was forbidden so the Jews used the tops to cover their illegal activity by playing a gambling game with the tops. The markings on the driedel are the Hebrew letters Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin. The letters stand for the phrase "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham", a great miracle happened there, referring to the miracle of the oil. The markings also stand for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which are the rules for the gambling game.
How to Play the Dreidel Game
What is Needed to Play
  • Two or More People
  • Dreidel
  • Tokens- Hanukkah Gelt is used as a point marker, but you can use any small countable objects (such as wrapped chocolate candies, match sticks, raisins, buttons or coins). Make sure you have a few dozen small objects, each person playing should have at least ten tokens.

Playing the Game

  • All players sit around the playing area, and the tokens are equally divided among all players.
  • To find out who is the first player everyone takes a turn at spinning the dreidel. The person with the highest spin has first turn. (Nun is highest, then Gimel, Hei, and Shin.) If there is a tie, those who tied spin again.
  • Everyone puts one token in the pot.
  • The first player takes their turn by spinning the dreidel then each player gets a turn going in a clockwise direction.(To speed up the game, some players will knock down the dreidel instead of waiting for it to stop spinning).
  • The dreidel will land with one letter showing on top. The player should preform the action according to the letter appearing.
    • Gimel-You take all of the pieces that are in the pot
    • Hei-You get half of the pieces that are in the pot
    • Shin-Put one more token in the pot.
    • Nun- Do nothing.
  • Pass the dreidel on to the next player.
  • Playing continues until someone wins by collecting all the tokens in the pot.

Jewish Holidays


  1. Jewfaq.org - Judaism 101