Hanukkah, or perhaps Chanukah or Chanukkah, or Hanukah, depending on who you ask, just happened this past month from Nov. 28th - December 5th. This blog perhaps comes a little late, but I wanted to make sure I was able to touch on one of my favorite holidays before we have completed moved to a new part of the year. Hanukkah as a holiday means different things to different people. Historically, it is the story of a military victory. As a legend and sometime religiously, it is the story of a miracle, evidence of a higher power. To myself, it is a time of family, food, traditions, and an example of my personal culture.
Historically, Hanukah discusses the story of battle between Greek or really Greco-Syrian invaders and the Jewish defenders. As was common during several different periods of history, conquering armies frequently raided, desecrated, or destroyed the religious, cultural, or artistic displays of the societies they invaded. In 168 BCE the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes sent his armies to Jerusalem to destroy the relies places of the Jews. Judaism was banned and Jews were given the option of death or converting to Christianity. Some accounts suggest that some Jewish communities removed to nearby areas, outside the temple and city area. Eventually, Jewish rebel forces, known as the Macabees after the family that lead them (the Hasmonean or Macabee family and the military leader Judah Macabee), were able to build themselves up and retake the temple (as well as win other military battles), which was then rededicated in the way of the Jewish tradition. This is where the name Hanukkah comes from, which means dedication.
From a religious and legendary perspective, this military victory was followed by a miracle. The ner tamid (Eternal Light) historically burned consistently in the temple. However, after the battle and the time that the Greeks had spent in the temple, there was only enough oil for one night. The story goes that as that small amount of oil burnt, a miracle occurred and it was able to last for 8 nights, before a messenger was able to return with more oil. However, history says that Hanukah was originally 8 nights to mirror Sukkot, one of the High Holidays, which is also 8 nights.
The most common practices to celebrate Hanukah center around the lighting of candles. Each night for 8 nights, an additional candle is lit in a menorah, a lamp that holds the candles. So for example, on the first night you light one candle, on the second 2 candles and so forth. An additional candle, the helper candle or the shammus (from the Hebrew word for servant) is lit by outside means (a lighter, flint, matches etc.). The shammus is then used to light the other candles of the night by hand. As the candles are lit, if there is a religious component to the celebration, there is usually a blessing said over the candles. I’ve included a transliteration of the blessing of the candles for Hanukah below as well as a translation. Hanukah has also taken on aspects over the years that are similar to those of holidays celebrated by other religious groups at the same time of the year. Often in modern times, Hanukah included the giving of gifts in some manner and the consumption of specific foods associated with the holiday.
Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid'shanu b-mitzvotav, v-tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.
Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe, Who made us holy through Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukah lights
To me, Hanukah foods are some of the best parts. A number of the traditional foods center around the use of oil in cooking, as another way to recognize the miracle of oil that occurred to rededicate the temple. These traditional foods include fried potato pancakes, known as latkes (lot-kuhs), wine, brisket or other cooked meat, and fried homemade donuts.
My family participates in a number of these different traditions in our celebration of Hanukkah each year. We light candles on each night of the holiday and my sister and I usually say the blessing on the candles. For us, it doesn’t really have anything to do with the religious component, we just like to be thankful for the light and warmth, and both of us happen to know the blessing, which is in Hebrew, while the rest of our family doesn’t know it. My family also does gifts for Hanukah. The number and the days on which we actually open the gifts varies year to year and is a little dependent on when we are home for winter break. Part of the problem, is that Hanukah happens at different parts of the year in the Gregorian calendar, which is the calendar most of us use ever day. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog on the Jewish high holidays, judaism centers around the lunar calendar and has different months, so Hanukah falls at a slightly different part of the year each year.
We also generally have a Hanukah party. My family has been doing this since I was very young. The day of the party begins with an final touch ups on cleaning and setting up the house before the first helpers arrive. Members of other families that have been coming to this party for years and years often show up early to help us prepare. At this point, the preparing itself is actually part of the event! We set up stations for making latkes. We commonly have somewhere around 30 people at the party, so we need a lot of latkes! The first station peels an entire bag of potato while the next station cuts them into quarters and passes the cut potatoes to the food processing station. The food processor is equipped with a grating tool that shreds the potatoes. The resulting mass is a bunch of grated potato and water. It turns out there is a lot of water in potatoes. Unfortunately water doesn’t fry well, so the grated potatoes are squeezed out to remove the water using cheesecloth to make sure we don’t lose any potato. The dry potato is combined with egg, spices, breadcrumbs, and onion before it is dropped into hot oil, pancake style. The fried latkes are collected in a giant mound (usually kept in the oven) until we sit down for dinner. Because we have so many people, my family serves meatballs as a tasty, convenient meat to go with our latkes. We make vegetarian ones for our veg friends as well. The latkes are served with applesauce and sour cream, and then usually we have some salad to balance out the meal. We have lots of wine and sparkling cider for the underage attendees. Everyone sort of perches around the house, enjoying each others company and eating delicious food.
As part of the party, anyone who wants to can perform a musical piece. All of the children at one time or another played various different instruments, so this was a practice instituted back when we were all learning. We follow up any music or games or other activities with lighting the menorahs. My mother collects menorahs and we display them all over my parents’ house during the party. Some years we have had enough menorah’s for each child to light an entire menorah on their own. We usually light all of the candles on the menorah for the party, as we are often having the party outside of the actual 8 days of Hanukkah. The result is a beautiful collection of menorahs sparkling all over the house. We turn off all of the electric lights and just enjoy the candlelight.
As the party hits the later hours, a pair of people are usually designated to fry donuts. One of the partygoers brings donut dough each year, and the donut friers spend some time frying the donuts and dipping the hot results in cinnamon sugar. The donuts are then carried around for people to grab a couple each, as they continue to chat and relax around the house.
I know I have sort of rambled on about the holiday as it is celebrated at my house, but this is one of the holidays I appreciate the most for its traditions. I love our practices of having the party every year, of lighting the menorah each night of the holiday, and of spending time with my family, playing games and enjoying each other’s company.
While the holiday itself has passed, I still have the Hanukah party in my future this year. It may be very small, due to the pandemic, but it will still happen once my siblings and I are all home later the December.
So now, for my lab mates during this, our last meeting of the term, I wish you a happy holiday, a happy winter break, and a Happy New Year!
I found some facts at and checked my knowledge against this website: