Factsheet: Hanukkah

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Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish religious festival which commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago

 

Where does Hanukkah come from?

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

The Seleucids 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.

How is Hanukkah celebrated?

Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev in the Jewish calendar, which occurs between late November and late December.

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; making 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.

What is the significance of Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is often understood as an event that celebrates freedom of religious oppression and persecution, and of hope over fear, light over darkness.

In Jewish tradition Hanukkah is a minor holiday that evolved long after the Hebrew Bible was completed and as such does not have any major religious restrictions on work associated with other festivals such as Yom Kippur or Passover.

However, over the past century it has risen to greater prominence, largely through the efforts of American Jews who promoted it as their equivalent to Christmas, which is often about the same time. It was especially popular among otherwise secular Jews who wished to have a holiday as Christmas became such an important part of American culture.

In Ashkenazi Jewish traditions, children are often given money during Hanukkah and in some places this has been replaced with presents, which also mirrors Christmas customs.

 

Useful links

The United Synagogue’s Chanukah page

Liberal Judaism’s FAQs on Chanukkah

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