Hanukkah’s Rich History

Lit menorahIn 200 B.C. the land of Israel, also known as Judea, was ruled by the King of Syria, Antiochus III. He was a harsh ruler, but still allowed the Jews to continue practicing their religion. However, once he died, his son Antiochus IV took over, and outlawed Jewish religion and practice.

Antiochus IV and the Syrian-Greeks did not agree with the Jewish way of life, which honored truth and moral purity, and the Syrian-Greeks instead focused their faith on the ideas of secular beauty and idol worship. They tried to convert all the people of Israel, and forced them to worship their Greek gods.

Many of the Jewish people did not obey, and this outraged King Antiochus IV deeply. In 168 B.C. the king ordered soldiers to attack the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, and thousands were killed. The aggressors ravaged the Jew’s holy Second Temple by erecting altars to the Greek God Zeus and sacrificing pigs, a non-kosher animal.

Sickened by this desecration, a Jewish priest named Mattathia and his five sons set out to regain control of the Holy Land. After Mattathia’s death, his son Judah (better known as Judah Maccabee) banded with other brave Jews, called the Maccabees, to fight in defense of the Torah, and drove the Syrians out.

The Maccabees reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the services of God. This occurred on the 25th month of Kislev, in the year 3622. When the victors went to light the menorah, only a single cruse of untainted olive oil was left. The oil miraculously burned for eight days until new, pure oil could be prepared.

Hanukkah, or Chanukah, was instituted to commemorate this miracle and give thanks and praise to God. The word itself means “dedication” in Hebrew.

When is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah, also known as Chanukah or the Festival of Lights, is celebrated at a different time each year. It begins on the eve of the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, which is the Hebrew month corresponding to November through December. This year, Hanukkah is from December 12 through December 19. 

5 Facts

  • God’s name is written G-d on anything that could be defaced.
  • The holiday of Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of the oil burning eight days, not the winning of the war.
  • Each year the Bank of Israel mints special Chanukah coins, featuring different Jewish communities around the world.
  • Hanukkah is actually one of the least important Jewish holidays.
  • It is customary to eat foods fried in oil during Hanukkah, especially latkes and sufganiots.

The Menorah
The branches of the menorah represent knowledge and creation. It is customary for blessings to be recited during its lighting. Three blessings are recited on the first night, and two blessings on each consecutive night after that. Ideally, cotton wicks in olive oil should be used; not gas or electric lights.

Candles should always be lit from the Shamash, or “helper candle,” in the middle. The first night, one candle is lit on the far right side of the menorah. The second night the one to the left of the first is lit, and so on. Candles are added right to left, but they are lit from left to right. On the eighth night all candles are lit, including the Shamash.

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Menorah candles are to be lit shortly after sunset, and should burn for at least half an hour. The exception to this is on Shabbat, or the Sabbath, when Hanukkah candles should be lit earlier than the Shabbat candles, because it is forbidden to light fire from sunset until nightfall the next day. Shabbat candles should be lit 18 minutes before sundown, so it is imperative that Hanukkah candles chosen for that night be able to burn around 90 minutes total.

The Dreidel
During the oppression, Torah study was outlawed, so the dreidel was used as a decoy for children studying the Torah. If they were in danger of being caught, the children would pull out the spinning tops and pretend to play games with them. Each of the dreidel’s four sides has a Hebrew letter, and together the letters make the acronym for “nes gadol hayah sham,” which means, “A great miracle happened there.”

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Hanukkah’s Rich History

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