Jews around the world will start celebrating the holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, beginning Wednesday at sundown until the evening of Dec. 5. The eight-day holiday celebrates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, when Jews led by the Maccabees revolted against their Greek-Syrian oppressors.
While Hanukkah may be one of the best-known Jewish holidays, it is not the most important, nor does it bear much religious significance. In fact, Hanukkah is not mentioned in Jewish Scripture, but in the Book of Maccabees, which is omitted from the Hebrew Bible.
For those of you who want to know what a menorah, dreidel or latke is, below are answers to common questions surrounding the popular Jewish holiday:
What’s the story of Hanukkah?
The holiday focuses on two events: how a small outnumbered army of Jews led by the Maccabee brothers were able to defeat the Seleucid Greco-Syrian Empire, which was attempting to impose its pagan religion on them. The second centers on a miracle that took place after the Maccabees liberated the Temple. The menorah (candelabra), which was an important part of daily Temple service that was meant to burn every night, needed to be lit. The Maccabees only found a small drop of oil, enough to burn for one day. Instead the oil lasted for eight nights – enough time for a fresh batch of oil to be resupplied.
How is Hanukkah celebrated?
Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev – which can fall anywhere between Nov. 27 and Dec. 26. This year it falls on the earliest possible date, and the second night of the holiday coincides with Thanksgiving in what is being called “Thanksgivukkah.” The next time the secular and religious holidays will overlap will be in at least 70,000 years, according to some estimates.
Each night, for eight nights, Jews light a branch of a menorah from left to right. The middle and tallest branch of the candelabra houses the shamash (attendant candle) that is used to light the other candles.
While it has become customary to give gifts on Hanukkah, the tradition stems from the influence of Christmas. Usually gift-giving is reserved for younger children. The only traditional gift on the holiday is “gelt” or small amounts of money.
What’s a dreidel?
On Hanukkah, children play with dreidels -- square tops. Each side is marked with one of the four Hebrew letters, Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin, which stands for "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham," a great miracle happened there. The dreidel gambling game stems from the Greek-Syrian rule when Jews who wanted to study the Torah (Hebrew Bible) were prevented from doing so. Whenever a soldier walked by they would play with dreidels to conceal their “illegal” activity.
What’s to eat?
Fried foods are a must for Hanukkah since the story focuses on the small drop of oil that lasted eight nights. Latkes, also known as potato pancakes, are a popular dish served throughout the holiday. Deep-fried doughnuts are also popular among Sephardic, Greek and Persian Jews.
Hanukkah or Chanukah?
The word Hanukkah literally means “dedication” or “induction.” Since Hanukkah is a Hebrew word, there’s not one proper transliteration. In English it takes on these two popular spellings. While either is correct the one beginning with “H” is the more widely used version – most likely because of the confusion of the ch sound when transliterated from Hebrew to English. There are 14 other variations that are technically correct, too.