The meaning of Hanukkah

The Week Staff

Once a minor holiday for observant Jews, Hanukkah has become a major celebration in the U.S. Why? Here's everything you need to know:

What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after a successful Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire in 160 BCE. The Seleucid dynasty, founded by one of Alexander the Great's generals after the Macedonian Empire was divided upon Alexander's death, spread Greek culture, ideas, and religion throughout the ancient Middle East. The Jews were initially granted a measure of autonomy within this empire. But in 175 BCE, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes instituted a program of forced assimilation in Judea, outlawing the Jewish faith and desecrating the Temple by sacrificing a pig and erecting an altar to Zeus. After a years-long campaign of guerrilla warfare, Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees defeated the Seleucids. Tradition holds that when the Maccabees recaptured the Temple, there was only one vial of undefiled olive oil, enough to light the seven lamps of the Temple menorah for just one day. Miraculously, the lamps kept burning for eight days, enough time to press and consecrate more oil. That's why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and is called the Festival of Lights.

How is it celebrated?
Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which falls on Dec. 22 this year. But because the Hebrew calendar is on a different cycle than the Gregorian calendar, the holiday can begin anywhere from late November through December. Households gather together each night to light today's menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum, while saying special blessings. The shamash, or "attendant" candle, is lit first and used to light one other candle on the first night of Hanukkah, with one more candle added every night. Dreidel, a game of chance with a spinning top, is often played after the candles are lit, with players seeking to win a small number of coins, nuts, candies, or trinkets. Instead of actual money, foil-covered chocolate coins called gelt are often used. Each side of the top is inscribed with a Hebrew letter — nun, gimel, hei, and shin — with the letters standing for "a great miracle happened there."

Is Hanukkah a major holiday?
For most of Jewish history, Hanukkah was considered a minor festival. The Hanukkah story does not appear in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, which is the basis of the Christian Old Testament. Unlike biblically established holidays such as Passover and Yom Kippur, Hanukkah has no special dietary restrictions, and work is still permitted. The book of 1 Maccabees, which was written around 100 BCE, tells the story of the Maccabean Revolt and the eight-day celebration of the rededication of the Temple. But it does not describe the miracle of lights, which first appears in writing nearly 600 years after the Maccabean Revolt, in the collection of Jewish laws and teachings called the Talmud. Some historians believe Hanukkah celebrations evolved alongside other winter solstice festivals incorporating fire and light amid the darkest days of the year. "Although Hanukkah today is one of the most popular and recognizable of Jewish holidays in the minds of non-Jews, this is only a relatively recent development," writes Tatjana Lichtenstein, director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas. "For centuries, Hanukkah remained less religiously and culturally significant than almost any other of the Jewish holidays."

When did that change?
Hanukkah began to take on more importance in the mid to late 19th century, amid large-scale Jewish immigration to the U.S. Many Jewish immigrants embraced American customs as a way of fitting in, including Christmas, which during the Victorian Era had begun its transformation into the highly commercialized holiday we know today. Alarmed by the number of Jewish families decorating Christmas trees and waiting for Santa Claus, religious leaders started to play up Hanukkah as an alternative. Cincinnati-based Reform Rabbis Max Lilienthal and Isaac M. Wise are credited with popularizing Hanukkah by developing special Hanukkah synagogue services focused on children, with candle-lighting, songs, and gift-giving, which they promoted in the Jewish press. "We must do something, too, to enliven our children," Lilienthal wrote in an editorial in 1876. "[They] shall have a grand and glorious Chanukah festival nicer than any Christmas festival."

How has Hanukkah evolved since then?
Hanukkah has become one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays in the U.S. Because it does not involve many of the strict religious requirements of other holidays, it's become a way for secular Jews to express their heritage and identity during the holiday season. It is also popular in the growing number of interfaith households, which celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Hanukkah has become a powerful public symbol of religious freedom. The New York–based Hasidic movement Chabad-Lubavitch promotes public menorah lightings around the world, including the National Menorah in Washington, D.C. Hanukkah has also been growing in popularity in Israel, although it is not a national holiday. Hanukkah is "a minor holiday that America has elevated into something much more," says Josh Plaut, head rabbi at the Reform Metropolitan Synagogue in New York City. "Jews have been part of that magnification of Hanukkah. It suits our purposes."

The commercialization of Hanukkah
Hanukkah sparks a seasonal debate in America over whether it's become too much like Christmas. Kitschy products such as the Elf on a Shelf have found counterparts in the Mensch on a Bench and the Maccabee on the Mantel. Kosher foods manufacturer Manischewitz sells Hanukkah House kits that use vanilla cookies instead of gingerbread and come with blue and white icing. The Hallmark Channel this year added two Hanukkah-themed movies to its lineup of nonstop Christmas fare. "In New York you cannot go into a shop without seeing a menorah next to the Christmas tree, so people tend to think they are related, and Hanukkah is easily obscured by the holiday spirit," said Adam Goldmann, a freelance journalist now living in Germany. "Here, I feel free to enjoy Hanukkah for what it really is, a secondary Jewish holiday. There's no commercial aspect whatsoever."

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