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The History of Hanukkah
(Sometimes written as Chanukah)

December 12-20, 2017


What Hanukkah really celebrates is the survival of Judaism.
And it is the only Jewish festival that is not mentioned in the bible.
(*Note: Some claim it that Hanukkah (or Chanukah) is mentioned in the bible verse John 10: 22. That the "feast of dedication" is what is called Hanukkah today.)

When Hanukkah begins varies from year to year. Hanukkah is celebrated in the home beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. It's a lunar holiday.  December 9, 2001 is when it will begin this year.  But basically it will fall somewhere between November 25 and December 26 from 25 Kislev to 2 Tevet.
For more information the Jewish Calendar, CLICK HERE!

How did it all begin?

Hanukkah annually represents the rebellion of the Jews against the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus, who was determined to impose the Greek religion on all of this subjects.  He forbid the Jews to read from their holy books, to pray to their god or to celebrate their holidays.  When Matthias, a Jewish priest of Modin (near Jerusalem) and his 5 sons heard about the king's decrees, the decided enough of this!  They ran to the hills and organized a small army lead by one son, Judah (aka Judas Maccabeus).  They fought the Syrians for 3 years and successfully forced the Syrian army out of their land in 162 B.C.E.

After the Jews won, they went into the Syrian Temple to get rid of their pagan altar (i.e. statues of Zeus and other Greek Gods) and dedicated the Temple to their own God.  They did this by re-lighting the holy candelabrum, commonly known as the Menorah.

The menorah wasn't the kind we know of today with candles.  It was more like an oil lamp.  The story goes that the Jews had a problem with their oil supply and only found enough pure (consecrated) oil to burn for ONE day.  And, it would take 8 days to get more.  But miraculously their menorah burned continuously for 8 days on the small amount of consecrated oil!  This rededication ceremony took place on the 25th day of the Jewish month known as Kislev (the anniversary of the Temple's desecration by the Greeks 3 years earlier.)  This is the reason Hanukkah is called "The Feast of the Dedication"  or "Festival of Lights."  The Hebrew word for dedication is Hanukkah.

But this holiday isn't really a commemoration of a military victory over the Syrians.  It is to celebrate Jewish independence and religious freedom in general.

Hanukkah Symbols


In Hebrew the word is sevivon.  The dreidel is a small, flat-sided top that spins on a central post or stem.  On each side is a Hebrew letter:  Non, Gimel, Hay and Shin = NGHS
New Gadol Hayeh Sham
That means:
"A great miracle happened there."

This great miracle is in reference to the Menorah that burned for 8 days on that small amount of oil mentioned above.

There are a few theories as to the origin of the dreidel.

One is that the game was brought to Europe from India during the Middle Ages and eventually played by German Christians on Christmas Eve.  The German letters on the dreidel are: H, G, H, S

HGHS = Nichts Ganz Halb Stell ein

That means:
Nothing, all, half, put in.

Doesn't make sense?
Well, this is why the Hebrews replaced the German letters with the Hebrew ones and created the sentence explained above.

Another reason is that the Hebrew letters on the dreidel also have numeric value as follows:

Nun = 50
Gimel = 3
Hay = 5
Shin = 300

So the players take turn spinning the dreidel and accumulating points.  But before the game is started the players decided how many rounds will be played. And at the end of the rounds, the player with the most points will be the winner.

Sometimes, the game includes a smidge of gambling where items are put into a pot before each spin.  This might be things like candy, nuts, raisins or small amounts of money (coins).  Then the game is played much like the German interpretation where if a player rolls for example a Gimel, he takes the entire pot.  But if the dreidel falls on Hay, then the player takes half the pot.  And if the player rolls Nun, he gets nothing! :(

To make the game even MORE challenging, some players draw a circle (i.e. about 24" in diameter) and the rules state that you must keep the spinning dreidel inside this circle. If your spinning dreidel goes outside the circle you lose a turn.

Now, the dreidel game was also used as a camouflage for practicing their religion where it was forbidden. They would meet under the guise of playing dreidel, but they would really secretly pray together and study the Torah.  

The early dreidel toys were carved from wood, today they can be purchased in many sizes and made from many different types of materials from redwood to plastic.

Besides the commemoration of the burning menorah miracle, the dreidel also symbolizes the spinning of the earth on its axis and the blending of the cyclical nature of both the seasons and the fortunes of the Jews.


These are more commonly known as potato pancakes which are served at Hanukkah in memory of the Maccabee women who cooked latkes for the Jewish soldiers when the were fighting the Syrians.  Because they are also fried in oil, latkes are symbolize that little bit of oil that miraculously kept the menorah burning for 8 days.

CLICK HERE to get Rabi Marc Gellman's Recipe for Latke


Originally, the menorahs were clay and burned oil and were nothing like the candelabras that we see today.

When I went on-line and went to Google's Image Search engine and logged in "menorah" I got all kinds of images.  And, frankly I am not sure if a menorah has 7, 8 or 9 candle holders because I saw all three kinds.  I believe the original menorah has 7 candle prongs, with 3 on each side and 1 center one.  Then I saw a menorah with 4 prongs on each side and a Star of David in the center = 8.  Then I saw a Menorah with 4 candle prongs on each side and one candle prong in the center = 9.  And since I am not Jewish, I am not sure which is the proper menorah image today.

But here is what the book says:

"Today's menorah stands on a base from which 9 banches sprout like fingers of a hand, and dates back to the Middle Ages.  The hanukkah menorah is called the hanukkiyyah, and has 8 places for separate candles with a 9th in the middle (the shammesh or "servant" candle) that is used to light the others.  It is also usually a bit higher than the other candles."

The lighting of the candles represent: Spirit, Courage, Justice & Hope and is the most important ritual of Hanukkah.

The first candle is lit (left to right) at sundown (using the shammesh) on the 24th day of Kislev.  On the second night, 2 candles are lit, and on each night after that, one more candle is added until by the 8th night all 8 (including the Shammesh in the center) are lit.

Another point is that no one blows out the candles. They are left to burn at least 30 minutes and allowed to extinguish themselves.

Along with the lighting ceremony, there is a Hebrew blessing and a statement about what is being commemorated.  Then the 30th Psalm is recited (which is like the anthem for Hanukkah.)

Because the lights associated with Hanukkah are not mentioned in the Book of the Maccabees, many scholars assume that they had nothing to do with the festival originallly.  But, somehow they were adapted from the popular pagan custom of lighting candles, torches and bonfires at the time of the Winter Solstice? But most Jewish people today still feel that the menorah is symbolic of the rekindling of the Temple candelabra by Judah and his followers.


It is a custom to give gifts to the children every night during Hanukkah. The gifts are known as Gelt and historically pertain to coins.  Today they are more often chocolate than real money.

Midi Title is "Dreidel" a Jewish Hanukkah Song
*Thanks to Jackie Schlageter to informing me of this bible verse.

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Source: Holiday Symbols, 2nd Edition
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. © 2000

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