Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is best known as the winter holiday when Jewish people light the "menorah" and exchange gifts. Hanukkah -- alternatively spelled "Chanukah" or "Hanukah" -- commemorates the victory of the Jews over their Greek rulers in the mid-second century B.C.E.
Many, however, prefer to shift the holiday's focus away from a military-victory celebration, in favor of the commemoration of the "Miracle of Lights." According to the ancient story, when the Jews re-dedicated the Holy Temple, there was very little oil remaining to light the Temple menorah (or candelabra) -- as the bulk of the lamp oil had been polluted. But the oil that was only enough for one day, miraculously lasted eight days. This is considered to be the origin of the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah.
The seven-branched menorah's presence in the Holy Temple had been commanded in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament), where its construction from a single piece of gold is described in great detail. It would seem that the nine-branched Hanukkah menorah -- also called a "chanukiah" -- is a tribute to the seven-branched menorah that was used in the Temple long ago.
In modern times, during this eight-day celebration, Jewish people across the globe light one menorah candle on the first night of Hanukkah, and add a candle each successive night. In the world of contemporary judaica, "menorot" (plural of menorah) are crafted from a wide range of materials, and represent a wealth of varying ideas about the meaning of the holiday. Steve Resnick's design company produces exquisite etched glass menorahs.
Tamara Baskin crafts menorot from fused glass, featuring themes ranging from whimsy to Jerusalem's Western Wall. Another Judaica style focuses on light-hearted, painted-metal animal menorahs.
Many artists have also designed beautiful, stylized versions of the "dreidel" -- a four-sided spinning top used in a game children traditionally play to win chocolate coins, or Hanukkah gelt. A contemporary art-piece dreidel (alternatively spelled "dreidle") is most often intended as sculpture, rather than for actual spinning and playing, and makes a wonderful Hanukkah gift.
More on the Holiday of Hanukkah
It is somewhat ironic that Hanukah is the most widely known Jewish holiday, despite the fact that it is a minor holiday. Hanukkah is not described in scripture, and it does not have the religious significance of Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. Still, the celebration of Hanukkah, the history behind its traditions, and the symbolism of the Menorah reinforce the basic tenets of Judaism: dedication, perseverance, generosity and remembrance.
Several generations after Alexander the Great, Antiochus IV inherited control of the Greek empire, which included Israel at the time. Where Alexander had allowed cultures to practice their own religions and customs, Antiochus tried to Hellenize the Jews. He placed a Greek priest in the Holy Temple, who desecrated the altar by demanding that pigs be sacrificed upon it. Jews were oppressed, even massacred, but when pressured to abandon their heritage and beliefs, Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee chose to revolt. A battle ensued. The Jews were outnumbered by the Greek army, which used armored elephants in their attack, but the Jews won the battle and reclaimed the Holy Temple. The word "Hanukkah," which means dedication, refers to the rededication of the Holy Temple, at which time the menorah was lit.
The victory was the first miracle of Hanukkah, but the Talmud also tells of a second. In the temple was a menorah, a candelabra that was to be lit every day with purified oil. But the Greeks had defiled all of the oil, except for a single flask, which was enough for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days while more of the purified oil could be produced. This miracle is commonly referred to as the Miracle of Lights, and it is celebrated each year during Hanukah, when candles are lit every night for eight days.
Over the years, the menorah has evolved to represent more than a candelabra. It has become a symbol of Judaism, and is even used on some Israeli coins. Still, the history of the menorah is largely unknown.
As the Jews wandered through the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, Bezalel made the first menorah as a symbol of the spiritual light spread by G-d. It is described in the Torah as having six branches and a seventh branch to light them. Chanukiot (plural of Chanukiah) have eight branches to commemorate the eight days of Hanukkah, with a ninth branch -- called a "shamash" -- to light them. Modern usage of the word "menorah" refers to both the seven- and nine-candle designs. In truth, the Talmud only requires a minimum of one candle each night of Hanukkah; lighting additional candles for each successive night is purely a custom.
The menorah itself has given rise over the centuries to several Hanukkah customs -- and like the menorah, their origins are not commonly known. For instance, families traditionally eat potato pancakes ("latkes") and jelly doughnuts ("sufganiyot") during Hanukkah. The fried food is a reminder of the oil that provided the Miracle of Lights. And while Jews exchange gifts on Hanukkah, it is a misconception that Hanukkah is the "Jewish Christmas." In fact, the custom originated from the Jewish practice of "tzedakah," or charity. The Talmud instructs every Jew to light a candle on Hanukkah, and those that cannot afford a candle are required to go "knocking on doors" until they have raised enough. The Talmud also instructs Jews to give charity to those in need and to preserve their dignity at the same time. It is said that the custom of giving Hanukkah gelt arose from the need to shelter poor people from the shame of begging.
Holidays preserve the memory of significant events, and traditions continue the practice of cherished values. Hanukkah is a time for family, celebration and joy -- and also a time for remembering the reasons for celebrating. The light of the Hanukkah candles is a reminder of past miracles, and of the continuing pursuit of peaceful Jewish ideals.
Some information in this article was provided by Ohr Someach (www.ohr.edu).
Hanukkah Menorahs. Hanukkah Festival of Lights. Hanukah History