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The history of Hanukkah


Hanukkah is a Jewish celebration which ranks amongst the most important of the year. This year Hannukah takes place from 18th December to 26th December. It changes each year and traditionally begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev from the Hebrew calendar. As this differs from the Gregorian calendar the dates change each year. Let’s explore the history of this important Jewish festival in time for the celebrations to begin.

The Story of Hanukkah

In Jewish tradition, Hanukkah is only a minor celebration, but it has become one of the most recognised and celebrated worldwide by families across the world. It has become as important as Passover and Purim for Jewish families and is built upon the story of the Maccabean revolt.

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Light, does not appear in the Torah, the Jewish Bible. It is recorded in the Maccabees I and II, a later collection of religious writings. The story begins in 168 BCE with the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes sending his army to Jerusalem to desecrate the Temple, the holiest site for the Jewish people at this time. Antiochus also abolished Judaism and outlawed Jewish practices and festivals with Jewish people given only two options: conversion or death.

On the 25th day of the month of Kislev in 168 BCE, the Temple was renamed for the God Zeus. A Jewish resistance movement, led by a family known as the Maccabees, grew to challenge the actions of the King. Judah Maccabee and his fighters won two major battles and the Temple was returned to the Jewish people. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple and the victory of Jewish forces over their invader.

The Miracle of the Oil

Legend says that when the Maccabees entered the Temple and began to reclaim it, they immediately relit the ner tamid or eternal light, which burns constantly in the Temple and all synagogues around the world in parallel. Legend says that although there was only enough oil for one day left in the Temple when the Maccabees arrived, it continued to burn until a messenger returned with more oil. The rabbis of the Talmud attributed the eight days of Hanukkah to the miracle of the single jar of oil.

Hanukkah in Modern Times

Hanukkah was a minor celebration in Jewish tradition for many years. However, it gained new meaning in the 20th century. The early pioneers of Israel found themselves often facing attack and this in turn saw them turning to their history and feeling a connection with ancient Jewish fighters who had stood and fought in the same place. Hanukkah shows the Jewish fighter in a positive light, and this aligned well with the political fight for freedom and liberation.

Hanukkah became even more important after the foundation of the modern State of Israel in 1948. Its historical significance, with its roots embedded in liberty, freedom and identity has become even more important in a post-Holocaust world.

How is Hanukkah Celebrated?

Hanukkah is celebrated with the lighting of the hanukkiah, the Hannukah menorah, a nine-branched candle. It also involves cooking special dishes and foods, most commonly latke, a potato pancake and sufganiyot, small jam doughnuts deep-fried in oil. Gifts are not traditionally given at Hanukkah, although in the Western world it has become more common as Hanukkah has become to align with Christmas. The game of dreidel is also traditionally played at Hanukkah.

Top Five Facts about Hanukkah

There are many fascinating facts about Hanukkah as it has evolved over the years, we’ve selected just five below:


1. Hanukkah means “Dedication”

Hanukkah translates as ‘dedication’ in Hebrew. It celebrates the dedication and triumph of the Maccabees' revolt over the Syrian-Greek King and the reclamation of the Temple in Jerusalem.

2. Gelt coins are given at Hanukkah

While chocolate coins are often considered a Christmas tradition, the giving of gelt, the Yiddish word for gold, to children meant the same thing. Gelt refers to the small chocolate coins given to Jewish children at Hanukkah. There is little tradition behind the giving of gelt and some Hebrew scholars believe it is a nod to the European Christmas tradition. Jewish Gelt is also used as a key element of the traditional Hanukkah game, dreidel

3. Dreidel was inspired by Germanic Christmas traditions that originated in England Ireland

The traditional game of dreidel, which sees competitors betting their pieces (often chocolate gelt) against each other as they play. The game uses a four-sided spinning top, the dreidel, and each side features a different Hebrew letter. The dreidel game is synonymous with Hanukkah but is a variant of a traditional German Christmas game, which itself was based on the British game, teetotum. Despite its mixed-up history, it remains a central part of most families’ Hanukkah celebrations.

4. The first Hanukkah was officially a delayed Sukkot

Jewish people historically observe the festival of Sukkot in the month of Tishrei. However, during the Maccabean uprising the forces were battling throughout Tishrei so instead observed the festival of Sukkot in Kislev. Some scholars attribute this commitment to observing Sukkot as the reason behind the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, as opposed to the miracle of the oil.

5. Hanukkiah candles must be lit a certain way

The traditional Hanukkah menorah, the hanukkiah, must be lit in a certain way to commemorate and celebrate the miracle of the oil. Each candle on the hanukkiah should be lit one by one to symbolise the miracle of the oil and the flame it produced, getting more impressive with each passing day. Traditionally the candles should be put in place from right to left but lit from length to right.