Learn More About Hanukkah

Why Do We Celebrate?

The much beloved eight-day holiday of Hanukkah is one of the Jewish holidays that does not come from the Bible. Why do we celebrate this late addition to the Jewish calendar?


Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees, a small band of fighting men led by Judah Maccabee, over the much larger and more powerful Syrian-Greek army of Antiochus the IV, who controlled Jerusalem and the province of Judea. At that time, there was conflict between those Jews who wanted to fully embrace Greek culture and those Jews who wanted to maintain traditional Jewish Life. In support of the assimilationists, Antiochus made decrees outlawing the practice of Judaism and set up idols of Greek gods in the Temple in Jerusalem and throughout the area, forcing the Jewish population to bow down to them. The Maccabean revolt was a battle to preserve the Jewish way of life.

Having defeated Antiochus’ army, Judah and his men went to the Temple, cleansed it, and rededicated it to the service of the one God. Judah restored its sacred furniture and wanted to light the menorah (candelabrum) that stood in the central courtyard using pure olive oil as was customary. However, all he could find was one small bottle of oil, with just enough to burn for one day. Miraculously, that little bit of oil burned for eight day and nights, until new oil could be made. This is why Hanukkah is known as the “Festival of Lights.”

The Significance of Hanukkah

The Hebrew word Hanukkah literally means “re-dedication.” Just as Judah and the Maccabees rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, we have the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to our most cherished values.
Hanukkah takes place in the winter, usually in December, at the time of year in the northern hemisphere when the days are the shortest and the nights the longest. It’s a time of year when many faiths and cultures engage in a ritual of lighting candles. Lighting the Hanukkah candles reminds us of our responsibility to bring light into dark places and to repair the world’s brokenness. Some families have adopted the tradition of dedicating each new candle lit over the eight nights to a specific hope or cause, and then giving a donation to a supporting organization.

Celebrating Hanukkah at Home

The central ritual of Hanukkah is the nightly lighting of the hanukkiah, a nine-branched candelabrum. Each evening, one candle is added until the hanukkiah is ablaze with light on the eighth evening. This meaningful ritual most often takes place at home, with the whole family gathered. As the candles burn brightly, Hanukkah songs are sung and the game of dreidel (spinning tops) is played. In commemoration of the miracle of the oil, it is traditional to eat delicious foods fried in oil: latkes (potato pancakes), and an Israeli favorite, sufganiyot (jelly donuts).

An Exercise for All Faiths and Backgrounds

  • As darkness falls one evening of Hanukkah, join loved ones and choose a beautiful candle to light. Enjoy the warm glow of family, friendship and love.
  • Talk or think about something that you would like to (re)dedicate yourself to in the coming months.
  • Make a donation to a cause you care deeply about.
  • Many traditions teach that “the body is the Temple of the spirit.” Do something special for your body: take a yoga class, go for a swim, enjoy a spa treatment, or explore new wellness activities.

How to Light the Hanukkiah (Special Nine-Branched Menorah)

1. Load the candles from right to left. One candle (the shamash) is used to light the other candles. The shamash is placed in a candle-holder slightly elevated from the other candles.

2. Light the shamash. On the first night, say Blessings 1, 2 & 3. On all other nights say Blessings 1 & 2.

3. Light the candles from left to right. Add a candle each night until all eight candles, plus the shamash, are lit on the eighth night.

4. Celebrate! Sing, play dreidel, eat delicious latkes!

Hanukkah Blessing

ברוך אתה יי, אלוהינו מלך העולם, אשר קידשנו במצוותיו, וציוונו להדליק נר של חנוכה.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam asher
kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.

Praised are you, Eternal One,
our God, source of all life,
who has made us holy with sacred
obligations and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.

ברוך אתה יי, אלוהינו מלך העולם, שעשה נסים לאבותינו, בימים ההם בזמן הזה.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam she’asah
nissim l’avoteinu ba’yamim ha’hem bazman hazeh.

Praised are you, Eternal One,
our God, source of all life,
who has made us holy with sacred
obligations and commanded us
to kindle the Hanukkah lights.

ברוך אתה יי, אלוהינו מלך העולם, שהחיינו, וקיימנו, והגענו לזמן הזה.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam
shehechiyanu, v’kiyamanu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Praised are you, Eternal One,
our God, source of all life,
who has given us life, sustained us and
enabled us to reach this moment.

Daily Hanukkah Teachings by Rabbi Lavey Derby

Sunday, December 22

The central ritual of Hanukkah is the lighting of candles for eight nights in a hanukkiah, a nine-branched candelabrum (the ninth branch is for the shamash, or helper candle that lights all the others). While the candlelight is aesthetically pleasing, this ritual has a deeper meaning. The sages of the Talmud tell us that the purpose of the Hanukkah candles is to “publicize the miracle” of the tiny bit of oil that created a flame that lasted for eight days. So, the Hanukkah candles became a 2nd century form of marketing. That’s why we are supposed to put our Hanukkiot in the open doorway or, more commonly, in the window. They are meant to be seen by the public.

What personal values do you wish to represent and publicly advertise by means of your Hanukkah candles?

Monday, December 23

In the first century C.E., a debate raged among two rabbinic schools of thought as to the proper way to light the candles: the School of Shammai maintained that on the first night of Hanukkah one should light eight candles, and decrease the candles by one each night; the School of Hillel argued that on the first night only one candle is lit, and each night we add one more.

The first opinion has logic on its side. Since the lighting of the candles reminds us of the oil that lasted for eight days, it makes sense to decrease the number the candles each night, just as the oil was diminished over time. The second opinion, however, makes a powerful value statement: as human beings, our purpose is to increase the amount of light in the world and we concretize that by increasing the number of candles on each evening until our homes are ablaze with light. In wisdom traditions, values often win out over logic, and the Jewish people overwhelmingly embraced the second view.

What will you do this year to illuminate the darkness and to repair the world’s brokenness?

Tuesday, December 24

According to the Hanukkah legend, after the Maccabees purified the Temple in Jerusalem and removed all the idols and pig carcasses from the Holy of Holies, they wanted to light the menorah, the seven-branched candelabra that lit up the Temple courtyard. They looked everywhere and could only find one little jug of pure oil which was just enough to light the menorah for one day. In an act of faith, they decided to light that little bit of oil and, lo and behold, the flame lasted for eight whole days! A miracle! That little bit of oil that wasn’t enough, actually was more than enough.

Have you ever felt that you’re not enough?

What will it take for you to know that you are enough, that you’ve always been enough?

Wednesday, December 25

Here’s a riddle: If there was enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for one day, and the oil lasted for eight days, then the miracle only lasted for seven days. So why do we light the candles, which celebrate the miracle, for eight days?

A delightful young Asian woman taught me a beautiful answer: The oil that was used on the first day was itself miraculous because it contained within it the potential miracle of giving light for the next seven days! This is an amazing teaching!

Consider this: there are miracles everywhere, all around us, waiting to happen. All they need is for us to do something to activate them.

Thursday, December 26

The Jewish people customarily light candles on two occasions: on the eve of Sabbath and Festivals, and on Hanukkah. While we say a blessing before lighting Sabbath candles, those candles are not holy. Their purpose is to illuminate a room and we are permitted to use their light. The Hanukkah candles are different. Because they have the distinct purpose of “publicizing the miracle,” their light is considered holy and we are forbidden to use their light for any other purpose. We mustn’t even use their flame to light the other candles. That’s one reason we have a shamash candle, whose flame can be used.

The Hanukkah lights remind us that somethings are meant to be special, unique, elevated above the ordinary. What in your life do you consider to be holy? How do you keep it from becoming commonplace?

Friday, December 27

Most of us were taught that the Maccabees fought for freedom from religious oppression. This idea is partially true, but the truth goes deeper. Antiochus, the Syrian-Greek ruler whose empire included Jerusalem, had a specific foreign policy. He desired to “civilize” his empire by giving people the best of Greek culture, and thus to unite all his subjects in one overarching culture. In this way, all his subjects would be equal, because they would all believe the same things, engage in the same activities, even dress the same. This ideology can be characterized as “totalitarian universalism.”

“What Antiochus offered the Jews was complete equality with all the rest of his subjects – as long as they would become the same as all his other subjects. So the Jews fought, not for equality, but for the right to be different.” (Prof. Harry Gersh) In a world in which everyone must be the same, being different is the greatest threat.

Hanukkah is another reminder that extremist universalism and believing there is only one Truth are among the most dangerous ideologies of our time.

Do you believe that no one can know the “whole truth?” Are you willing to listen to someone you disagree with in order to understand rather than to debate?

Saturday, December 28

The word hanukkah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “dedication.” As the name for our holiday, it refers to the Maccabees’ re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been defiled by Antiochus. Dedication is an act of will; rededication is an act of will, resilience, and hope. Over 2500 years the Jewish people, no matter what traumas they experienced, has resiliently chosen to rededicate themselves to their most treasured ideals.

We, too, are called not merely to dedicate ourselves to a belief, a principle or a cause, but to rededicate ourselves. Our lives are filled with promises once kept and now forgotten, and meaningful causes we have ignored for too long. These promises, these causes, require constant attention and constant effort in order to make a difference and have an impact.
While the Jewish people celebrate the miracle of oil that lasted for 8 nights and of Judah’s military victory, perhaps this act of rededication is the real miracle.

Tonight, what will you rededicate yourself to?

Sunday, December 29

The early 20th century sage and kabbalist, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, taught: “Everyone must know and understand that within burns a flame. No one’s flame is like another’s, and no one lacks their own flame. Everyone must know and understand that it is their task to work to reveal the light of that flame in the public realm, to ignite it until it is a great flame, and to illuminate the whole world.”
So be a shamash. Go out and light as many candles as you can.

There’s extra credit if you sing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna make it shine.”

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