Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights

What Jewish holiday falls between late November and late December? Hanukkah, of course!

It falls between late November and late December of each year. Years ago, Hanukkah was just a minor celebration. Towards the end of the 19th century it has become almost popular as the celebration of the Passover. The popularity is credited to its nearness to Christmas, which other Christians all over the world observe.

Why is it then called the Festival of Lights? It is because Hanukkah begins four days before the new moon appears in the sky, hence that period is considered the darkest time of the month. Therefore it is very fitting that the most symbolic item to use for the celebration is light, to illuminate the darkness. The Hanukkah ritual involves the lighting of the candles, one at a time. The candles are added from right to left, while the lighting starts from the left to the right, one candle for each night of the celebration. The candle is allowed to burn until morning. So on the first night, a candle is lit; on the second night, two candles will be lit and the pattern goes on until the eighth day. The middle candle is the shammash, the source of the light used for the others.

Blessings are recited when the candle is lit or after lighting a candle. The prayer gives thanks to God who continues to bring light into this world and to everyone’s life.

Hanukkah is…

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival celebrated by practicing Jews each year. Compared to other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday. Even so, it is still of great importance because it commemorates an important event in the history of Judaism.  In Hebrew, the word “Hanukkah” means “dedication.” Hanukkah falls on the 25th day of Kislev. What’s Kislev? It is one of the months on the Jewish calendar. Going by the Gregorian calendar, Hanukkah this year (2011) began on December 20.

The celebration lasts for eight days. Hanukkah is a commemoration of the rededication of the Holy Temple or the Second Temple (located in Jerusalem) during the 2nd century BC. This festival is known by many names including: Chanukah, Chanuka ad Chanukkah. It is also called the Festival of Lights or sometimes, the Feast of Lights. The Hanukkah menorah takes center stage during this celebration and Jews follow different traditions both old and new.

Brief history of Hanukkah

If you pick up the Torah, which is the first five books of the Old Testament, and look up Hanukkah, you will not find any reference to it. This is because the events that led to the commemoration of Hanukkah happened after the five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were written. You will however, find a mention of Hanukkah in the New Testament. At one point in the life of Jesus Christ, he was said to have attended a “Feast of Dedication.”

In 200 BC, the king of Syria, Antiochus III, governed Judea, which was the Land of Israel. He was, in a sense, a benevolent ruler, since he allowed the Jews to live in Judea and continued to let them practice their own religion. Unfortunately, Antiochus III’s son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was not like his father. He outlawed the religion of the Jews and forced the Jewish people to pray to the Greek gods instead. At one point of his reign over Judea, his soldiers massacred thousands of people who were living in Jerusalem. This happened in 168 BC. Antiochus IV also ordered the desecration of the holy Second Temple. The Greek god Zeus was given an altar within the temple. Pigs were sacrificed within the sacred temple and their blood smeared on the walls.

A Jewish priest named Mattathias, together with his five sons, led a rebellion against Antiochus IV and his soldiers until his demise in 166 B.C. Judah, one of his sons, took over Mattathias’ role. Judah was the one known as Judah Maccabee or “the Hammer.” Within two years, the Jews, under the leadership of Judah, successfully drove the Syrians out of the holy city. He ordered his followers to cleanse the holy temple, rebuild its desecrated altar and light the menorah.

Hanukkah miracle

There are different versions and interpretations of the Hanukkah story. One alluded to a miracle that was said to have occurred during this time (this story does not appear in the Old Testament’s Book of the Maccabees). According to legend, Judah’s men found enough untainted oil in the temple to keep the candles of the menorah burning for at least a day. But lo and behold, the flames continued to flicker for seven more nights. This gave Judah and his followers enough time to obtain more untainted oil for use in the temple. Because of this “miracle,” the Jewish sages were inspired to establish the annual eight-day Hanukkah festival.

The Hebrew calendar

The most widely used calendar in the world is the Gregorian calendar, which is also known as the Western Calendar and the Christian Calendar. This was the calendar established by Pope Gregory XIII. However, different religious faiths used their own traditional calendars when establishing the dates for their religious feasts, celebrations and commemorations. Islam for instance uses the lunar calendar while those of the Jewish faith use the Hebrew calendar. This is why dates for particular events special to these two faiths change each year on the Gregorian calendar.

The basis of the calendar used by the Jews is the movement of the moon. Each month on the Hebrew calendar starts when the first sliver of the new moon reveals itself in the sky. This happens soon after what is called the dark moon phase. During ancient times, people used their naked eye to determine when the new moon begins to peek out of the sky. Once a sliver appears, those who have seen this sliver tells the Sanhedrin (a group of 23 judges serving every city in Israel at that time). It is the job of the Sanhedrin to declare the beginning of each month based on information from credible, independent eyewitnesses. Messengers then go around the cities to inform the people when the start of the month begins.

The Jewish year starts with the month of Nissan, which has about 30 days. In the Gregorian calendar, this falls between March and April. The year ends with the month of Adar II, which has about 29 days and also falls between March and April. Kislev, the month where Hanukkah falls, is the ninth month of the Jewish year. It may have 29 or 30 days and falls between November and December.

The dates for Hanukkah (25 Kislev on the Jewish calendar) on the Gregorian calendar are found below. Hanukkah begins at sundown on these dates.

December 20, 2011
December 8, 2012
November 27, 2013
December 16, 2014
December 6, 2015

Tradition, tradition, tradition

The Jews take their religious traditions seriously. In the story of the Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye, a Jew, says at one point “Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as…as…as a fiddler on the roof!” He even bursts into the song entitled “Tradition” in the play and the movie versions. Some of the Hanukkah traditions have been handed down from many generations. Other traditions are more recent. Each country or even each community of Jews may have their own special Hanukkah traditions related to food, gifts and activities. But all Jewish communities have one basic and common tradition, the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah.

Let there be light

The Hanukkah menorah is at the center of this Jewish celebration. It is a nine-branched candelabrum usually made of metal but can also be made using other materials such as glass. The Hanukkah menorah is also called by these names: hanukkiyah, hanukiah and chanukiah.

It is wrong to use the term menorah to only refer to the nine-branched candelabrum because there is a menorah with only seven branches, which is used to celebrate the days of the creation of the world and mankind. The latter is usually made of gold and uses only fresh olive oil. It is also used as a symbol of universal enlightenment, in reference to the branches of knowledge of humans, moving towards the center from outside. The lamp at the center symbolizes the light God uses to guide His people.

The Hanukkah menorah is lit starting from the first candle on the left side. One candle is lit nightly from left to right. This lighting of the candles is the reason why Hanukkah is often referred to as “the festival of light.”

The Hanukkah menorah is displayed prominently inside a dwelling, ideally by the window to remind others of the events that occurred that led to the celebration of Hanukkah. During the candle lighting ritual, Jewish blessings are recited.

Although Hanukkah lasts only for eight nights, the Hanukkah menorah has nine candles. The reason for this is that the ninth candle is known as the “shamash” or the “helper.” This is the candle that is used to light each of the candles that are added to the Jewish candelabrum daily after the sun has set.

Today’s Hanukkah menorah comes in many different styles. The shamash in some menorot (plural of menorah) is at the center of the Hanukkah menorah while in others it is at the left side. Some menorot are built for candles while others are built for burning oil. The Hanukkah menorah is one of the most well known symbols of Judaism together with the Star of David.

You can find the largest Hanukkah menorah in the world in Manado, Indonesia. Its height is about 62 feet. It is much taller than the Hanukkah menorah located on New York’s Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. This New York Hanukkah menorah is only 32 feet in height. What is interesting about having the largest Hanukkah menorah in Manado is that the number of Jews in the area are said to be no more than 20.

Hanukkah gatherings, eats and treats

Jewish families gather together every Hanukkah not only to light the Hanukkah menorah but also to share meals together, play games, sing songs and give gifts. Many households decorate for Hanukkah to bring in a more festive vibe to the home.

During gatherings, Jews throughout the world sing traditional Sephardic and Ashkenazic songs as well as more recent compositions. One popular song, “I Have a Little Dreidel,” is known both by Jews and non-Jews. Comedian Adam Sandler has a very popular song called “The Chanukah Song” which he performed in 1994 while on Saturday Night Live. The song became more popular when it was included in Sandler’s Hanukkah-themed animated movie “Eight Crazy Nights.”

A number of Hanukkah foods are cooked in oil. This is partly an allusion to the miracle that was said to have happened during the time of Judah Maccabee. Latke or potato pancakes are very popular and traditional as are sufganiot or jam-filled donuts. Latkes are topped with different toppings including applesauce and sour cream. Fritters are also a hit at this time. Foods made with cheese are also customary during this Jewish festival. The eating of cheese and other dairy products pays homage to Judith, a Jewish heroine who saved her people from the Syrians.

Children are treated to gifts of gelt, the Yiddish term for money. Chocolate gelts, which are round, flat chocolate encased in gold foil to resemble gold coins, are handed out to children. They may also receive nuts and raisins. Lately, families and friends exchange gifts during Hanukkah. This is not traditional because gifts are usually exchanged during a different Jewish celebration, Purim. The concept of gift giving is something new. Some say that the Christmas tradition of gift giving rubbed off on the Jews because Hanukkah falls within the Christmas holiday season.

The dreidel

“Sevinon” is the Hebrew equivalent of the Yiddish word dreidel. The definition of sevinon is “to turn around.” During Hanukkah, it is traditional to play with the dreidel, a toy that looks like a top with four sides. The dreidel is usually made from wood. Four Hebrew letters are found on the dreidel. The four letters on the four sides are: “nun,” “gimmel,” “hey” and “shin.” The dreidels used in Israel have the letter “peh” on it instead of “shin.” The English translation of what the letters stand for is: “A great miracle occurred there.” However, in Israel, the saying is: “A great miracle occurred here.”

One story about the dreidel tells about how the Jews used to play with the toy whenever Syrian soldiers enter their homes. Since practicing Judaism was outlawed, Syrian soldiers would often raid the homes of the Jews and check whether the Jews were following their laws. The Jews would grab a dreidel and pretend to play with it when in fact they were reading the Torah moments before the arrival of the soldiers. Other references refute this story. It is believed by some that the use of the dreidel came long after the Syrians were defeated.

Playing the dreidel

The basic game of dreidel is a gambling game. There is no limit to the number of players that can play. Each player has to have an equal number of items to use as game pieces. Some examples of game pieces are coins, food items (candies, nuts, raisins, etc.), matchsticks and chocolate gelts.

Players start by putting one item into the pot. The pot should never be empty so it is also necessary to add one item to the pot when someone wins all of its contents or when only one item is left in the pot. A player spins the dreidel and waits for it to stop. The letter that is facing up determines the action of the player.

If the player gets “nun” he does nothing because “nun” stands for “nisht” which in Yiddish means “nothing.” “Gimmel” stands for “gantz” which means “everything;” so, the player gets to empty the pot. “Hey” is “halb” or “half;” so the player collects half of what is in the pot. Finally, “shin,” which is on dreidels outside of Israel, stands for “shtel.” In Yiddish this means “to put in.” The player has to add one game piece to the pot. In Israel, “peh” is used in place of “shin,” which means “pay.”

Players with no items left can either make a “loan” from another player or opt out. When one player wins all the game items, the game is over.

Hanukkah and Christmas

Hanukkah is not a major event when taken in the context of the Jewish law. However, the Jewish community has embraced Hanukkah and made the festival very significant. It is a celebration of Judaism’s survival. It reminds Jewish adults about their deep faith and the big responsibility they have in terms of educating their children about the religion of the Jew.

Hanukkah, which falls around the Christmas holidays, should never be in competition with Christmas. It is not the Jew’s version of Christmas and there is no such thing as Chrisnukkah. Since Hanukkah is a minor holiday for the Jews, no one is asked to take a day off. But some Jews make it a point to go home early for the ritual lighting of the candles on the Hanukkah menorah.

It’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of the Christmas holidays even for Jews. But it is important to stay true to one’s faith. Hanukkah, like Christmas, can also be a fun and memorable time for the Jews without letting go of the true essence of the celebration. Hanukkah and Christmas, in a sense, are both festivals of lights. Hanukkah celebrates the ever-burning light of one’s faith. Christmas is about the birth of the light of the world in Jesus Christ.  

Happy Hanukkah to Jews all over the world!


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