The Jewish Genealogy Association 

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights

By François van Deth (translation: Gaby Laws)


Hanukkah menorah
(Basel museum - Photo F. van Deth)

The celebration of Hanukkah is held each year for eight days from 25 Kislev, this year it falls from December 12 to 19.

Literally, the word Hanukkah means "opening" or "dedication." This festival commemorates the victory of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, of the Hasmonean family, against the Syrian Greeks in 165 BC.

The country was then ruled by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who sought to impose the Greek way of life, by prohibiting certain practices such as respect for the Sabbath or circumcision. Following the religious persecutions of Antiochus, which culminated in the desecration of the Temple, the destruction of Torah scrolls, and the publication of a decree banning the practice of Judaism, Mattathias the High Priest, refused to allow this decree and rebelled with the religious Jews. His son, Judas Maccabaeus, became the leader of the revolt which lasted three years.

Finally, the Seleucids were driven out and the Jews proceeded to purify the Temple desecrated by the Greeks. This is the rededication of the Temple which is celebrated at Hanukkah.

Later, a Talmudic legend told at the rededicated of the Temple, said it was necessary to burn golden candelabrum with a pure oil for eight days. However, all they had was enough oil for one day. The miracle of Hanukkah was that the candelabra burned for the required eight days even though there was not sufficient oil for that length of time.

The celebration of Hanukkah is the memory of this event. It is a celebration of freedom and light, a symbol of freedom.

During the eight days of the festival, we light the first candle on the first night and then add one candle each night on to a special candelabrum which is called in Hebrew Hanoukkiah. This candelabra has been made in various forms throughout history, it has in fact nine lamps, the ninth being the "caretaker" which is the one used to light the other lamps. The lamps were formerly oil lamps, but are now replaced by candles.

Originally, the Hanukkah candle was placed on the doorsteps of houses, so it was clearly visible. Later, especially in central Europe, it was placed in front of a window.

It is traditional to mark the occasion with a feast of dishes where oil is present: fried potatoes (latkes), pancakes stuffed with jam (soufganyot or doughnuts). Children play with a spinning top (Dreydel in Yiddish). On the four sides of the top are inscribed the letters nun, gimmel, hey, chin, original sentence nes gadol haya sham "a great miracle happened there".

Currently, in countries with a Christian majority, Hanukkah has become in many families a substitute for Christmas, where gifts are offered to children.