Tradition is a major component of the Jewish faith, so it’s no surprise that tradition plays such a central role during the celebration of Chanukah.
Although some are quick to note Chanukah is not one of the major Jewish holidays, Chanukah is celebrated in a very public fashion. Chanukah celebrants make the holiday more high profile by displaying their menorahs in prominent locations and participating in holiday meals.
Like other Jewish holidays, Chanukah is shrouded in tradition. Chanukah means “dedication” or “induction” in Hebrew. The holiday begins on the 25th of Kislev and can occur in either November or December. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Chanukah includes menorah displays, traditional foods, and games and songs.
Chanukah rose to prominence thanks in part to the story of faith and miracle behind its inception. Antiochus IV was a Greek sovereign in control of the region of Syria, Egypt and Palestine, where many Jews resided. Antiochus began to oppress the Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion and desecrating the Jewish Temple. Opposition to Antiochus grew, and a group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son, Judah Maccabee, took on the Syrian army. They were successful in their efforts to combat religious oppression, and the Temple was subsequently rededicated. The Talmud states that, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. This posed a problem because oil was needed to burn the Temple menorah throughout the night every night.
However, there was only enough left for one night’s illumination. Miraculously, that oil burned for eight nights, leading to the development of an eight-day festival to commemorate this miracle.
Because Chanukah is about the miracle of the oil and the lasting flame, oil and candles factor heavily in the holiday. A nine-armed menorah called the hanukiah is lit, and one candle is lit on each of the eight nights of the celebration. The last branch of the candelabra holds the shamash (servant) candle. The organization Reform Judaism says the traditional song, “Ma’oz Tzur (Rock of Ages),” is sung after the lighting of the candles each night and at other times throughout the holiday. Foods fried in oil, including latkes and jelly doughnuts, are consumed as well.
Celebrants play games with a dreidel, a German-based spinning top, and giving to charity is encouraged. Chanukah is one of the few times of the year when rabbis permit games of chance. The letters atop the dreidel stand for the first letter of each word in the Hebrew statement “Neis gadol hayah sham,” which translates to, “A great miracle happened there,” and refers to the defeat of the Syrian army and the rededication of the Temple.