What is Hanukkah?

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The name comes from the verb meaning to dedicate’ and the festival commemorates the re-dedication of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE, following an uprising by Judas Maccabeus against the rulers of Israel, the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) and their king Antiochus IV.

They wanted a common religion and culture and suppressed Jewish laws, forbade Jewish worship, killed thousands of Jews, removed the High Priest from the Temple and demanded the worship of Greek gods.

Seven years of battles against Greek influence culminated in taking the Temple in Jerusalem. The victors lit the Temple’s Menorah – a seven branch candelabrum – with oil that lasted eight days, considered to be a miracle. Now the festival is marked by the daily lighting at nightfall of a nine-branch candelabrum, with one flame being used to light the other eight, one day at a time. It stands in households, synagogues and public places.

Customs include rituals including singing and prayers; eating fried foods such as a potato pancake ‘latke’, or doughnuts; playing games with a ‘dreidel’, a four-sided spinning top; giving gifts of money to children and charity; and greeting all with ‘Happy Hanukkah’.

Huge Menorahs are to be found in towns and cities throughout the UK where public ceremonies are held each year, including at Trafalgar Square in London, where it stands in front of a Christmas Tree.

At Trafalgar Square in 2019, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim, said:

“I know this story of Hanukkah, the story of freedom over religious oppression. It’s a story as relevant now 2000 years on as it was when the Maccabees fled persecution. Because you and I both know there are some people who try and divide us, who try and divide a wedge between people, of different religion and ethnicities… This is a celebration of hope over fear, of light over darkness, of freedom over oppression and that’s the London we love”

Rabbi Herschel Gluck, Chairman of the Arab-Jewish Forum of Great Britain and founder of the Muslim-Jewish Forum, who spoke at the first dedicated Hanukkah celebration event in Hackney, said in 2019:

‘The festival of Chanukeh celebrates the miracle of the weak overcoming tyranny of the strong, and light illuminating and dispelling darkness, is a message that all people in Hackney and beyond can relate to and draw inspiration from.’